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Debt and Taxes in Pictures and Graphs

Sat ,09/03/2013

We all have different ideas about what is a fair tax policy and a fair distribution of wealth.  Below are some pictures and graphs  which  show that conventional wisdom may not give us a clear picture of the facts – and that we may need to reconsider what is actually fair.

State Taxes: Last year, Oklahoma cut  state taxes and is considering another tax cut. The graph below is the data for Oklahoma from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy .  It shows that those in the lowest income group pay the highest percentage  of their income in taxes.  The 2012 Oklahoma tax cuts skewed the distribution even more, as 75% of the tax cuts went to the top 20%  in income.  You may look  up the data for your state at the link above. The tax cuts in Oklahoma, and perhaps in your state, were justified by using Laffer’s economic theory, though the theory apparently fails in practice.

Capture
Distribution of Wealth:  The graph  below compares what people consider the ideal distribution of wealth, with how they think wealth is distributed. Both are very different from the actual distribution of wealth. Taxation and spending policies have greatly contributed to this distribution of wealth.

 

Wealth in Amer 2

 

National Debt:  Taxation and spending policies greatly affect our national debt. The graph  below, from the CBO, shows how the surplus projected in 2001, the top red line, was decreased by the weakening economy, tax cuts, and spending decisions. The stimulus accounted for  6% of the decrease and Obama’s policies for 8%.

 

debt

 

Tax Rates: This chart gives some historical perspective on the top marginal tax rates. Those in the top  income bracket     have been enjoying the lowest tax rates since World War II.

 

tax rates

 

Spending:  The conventional wisdom is that our current deficit is because of  increasing government spending. That is not borne out by the data.

spending

 

The Deficit: Though there have been many claims about our growing deficit,  the deficit has actually been shrinking as a share of the GDP.

 

Deficit Obama

 

Ancient Wisdom: Aristotle thought that nature, and even politics, could best be understood by observations and reason. In the fifth century BC, Aristotle compared the democracy in Athens with other forms of government and warned against a major flaw in democracy. If the poor gain too much power, they will vote too many benefits for themselves and will deplete the treasury.  If the rich gain too much power,  they will use that power to further enrich themselves, leaving too many of the citizen’s poor. Aristotle thought democracy was only a viable form of government if there was a strong middle class.

Economics is not the only issue in most elections, and many people vote for a candidate based on social issues, sometimes without considering that  the candidate may make decisions against their best economic interests. Perhaps it’s time we put divisive  social issues aside for awhile, and work on restoring the economic balance in our society. Our education system, our infrastructure, our health, and our economic well-being all depend heavily on our taxation and spending policies. Although economic imbalance may be becoming a threat to our democracy, that can be changed if we will become informed and

 

Vote

 

(C) 2013 J.C. Moore

A Bad Time to Cut Taxes in Oklahoma

Wed ,23/05/2012

 

Although this is about Oklahoma, your state may be experiencing some of the same problems. Many states  approved a Taxpayer Bill of Rights and many  state officials and legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s Tax Pledge, both  which make it difficult to raise taxes. When those are coupled with past and proposed  tax cuts, many states are now experiencing a budget squeeze that makes it difficult for them to provide core services for their citizens. A recent tax proposal in Oklahoma will give tax cuts to some of the wealthiest citizens, increase taxes for others, and result in $130 million loss in revenue for the state – if passed.

This is really a bad time to cut taxes in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is already facing problems paying for education, public safety, and infrastructure improvements. The recent tax proposal worked out by Governor Mary Fallin and Republican Legislature leaders falls far short of the needs of the state and earlier goals. It would reduce state revenues by over $130 million at a time when schools and other core services are struggling to recover from years of crippling budget cuts. This means fewer teachers and larger class sizes, higher tuition costs, fewer public safety officers, and resources cuts for those who serve the most vulnerable Oklahomans.

The Senate and House leaders have insisted for months that any tax cuts will be revenue-neutral so as not to impact the budget. Their effort to cut credits and subsidies for special interest groups have failed as lobbyists for the special interests have been effective in keeping the subsidies intact. It  leaves the state on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to oil and gas producers and other special interest groups and does nothing to address the skyrocketing costs of these credits.  Yet they have come up with a proposal to cut taxes  even though the proposed tax changes are not revenue neutral.

The political benefit of an advertised tax cut is much greater than any claimed economic benefit. The state leaders have assured us that cutting the income tax will create jobs and improve the economy. An analysis of a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece urging tax cuts reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of Oklahoma’s tax cut arguments and finds: “Tax cuts financed by reduced spending on public services … have been linked with negative growth consequences.  Government expenditures matter – other things equal, poorer public services hurt economic performance.” It is also very difficult to see how anyone can create a job with the average $60 tax cut. However it is very clear that $130 million could be used to fund 2000 jobs for teachers, policemen, firemen, and public servants.

 A Tax Cut for the Wealthy: The Oklahoma Tax Commission finds that 40% of the tax cut being considered will go to the top 4% of households but increase taxes for 24% of taxpayers.  Under this proposal, the tax increase and elimination of deductions will fall more on the lower and middle income wage earners. Our present income tax code is based on the idea that those who profit most from our state’s wealth, resources, and opportunities should pay a greater share of taxes. That’s fairer and more pragmatic than shifting more taxes to those who have less. This plan would increase taxes on 24% of low and middle income taxpayers. The OK Constitution forbids a tax increase without a three quarters vote of the Legislature or a referendum. When does that 24% get to vote on their tax increase?

Constitutional Issue : There is also a constitutional question involved. Oklahoma’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and 33  state representatives have signed The Americans for Tax Reform Pledge that they will oppose any effort to raise taxes. However, the Oklahoma Constitution, says in Article X, Section 5: under Surrender of Power of Taxation : “ A. Except as otherwise provided by this section, the power of taxation shall never be surrendered, suspended, or contracted away. “ Those who have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge appear to be in violation of the Oklahoma State Constitution as they have contracted away their power of taxation. The Pledge is signed and witnessed as a legal document. Those who have signed the pledge should  recuse themselves from any action on the state income tax.

A request to Attorney General Scott Pruitt to rule on the question was sidestepped. The Attorney General replied to a letter requesting his opinion  that his office did not research questions for individuals and suggested that the question be taken to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. When the complaint was then filed on the Attorney General’s official complaint form, the reply was: “Since the pledge was not filed as a bill in the Oklahoma legislature it does not seem that it would have a binding effect on the parties who signed it. Therefore, there would not be a conflict with the Oklahoma Constitution. You may consult an attorney to see if there are legal consequences that might be available to you.” The Oklahoma Constitution says it is the duty of the Attorney General “ to support, obey, and defend the Constitution of theUnited States, and the Constitution of the state of Oklahoma.” Apparently one must file a lawsuit to encourage the Attorney General to carry out his responsibilities.

Mortgaging Oklahoma’s Future: Although the state’s leadership has not budgeted adequately for the present or the future, their current tax proposal could have far-reaching effects. The proposal contains a trigger that would reduce the top tax rate to 4.5 % – if state income grows by 5 %. Part of the reason the state is in its present financial trouble is from a tax reduction trigger set by a previous Legislature. As a result of the 5% growth from the bottom the recession, the top tax rate was reduced from 5.5 to 5.25% last year, even though the revenue was lower than when the trigger was set. Tax triggers that automatically ratchet down the top income tax rate are opposed byOklahoma’s business, civic, and educational leaders as the Legislature is locking the state into a tax cut without knowing the needs or funding or sources available in the future. Once cut, it is very unlikely that taxes could be raised again, as state question 640 mandated that any tax increase must pass either a 75 percent vote of the Legislature or a vote of the people. However, tax cuts can be passed by a simple majority in both houses, which means that tax cuts are easy to make but tax increases, no matter how badly needed, are unlikely to be passed.

(c) 2012 J.C. Moore

Note added 5/25 /2012: The Tulsa World announced today that the tax cut plan is dead for the year but the governor has sworn she will revive it again next year. It is not clear whether reason prevailed or whether squabbling about the tax cuts being too much or not enough kept the cuts from passing. The budget did pass, however, it left many state budgets that cover core services about what they were in 1998. You may wish to check here to see if any among your  state officials and legislators  have signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge.

Congressman John Sullivan’s Town Hall Meeting II

Tue ,07/02/2012

 

Congressman John Sullivan (R-OK) held a town hall meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he discussed the budget, Social Security,  energy issues, EPA regulations, jobs, and the XL pipeline. The article gives Congressman Sullivan’s positions, comments and questions asked by the audience, and compares the authors views to Congressman Sullivan’s.

Congressman John Sullivan conducted two town hall meetings in Tulsa on January 26, 2012. The first was held at Tulsa Community College’s Metro Campus where a number of his constituents challenged Sullivan’s views. That meeting was reported  by the Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbeil in, “Sullivan town hall-goers applaud Obama speech”.  The afternoon meeting, which was held at the Hardesty Library in South Tulsa, had a much more partisan crowd. Congressman Sullivan’s opening remarks were much like those at his Sand Springs meeting last November. At the Hardesty meeting, he did not give people the opportunity to applaud Obama’s speech, he just criticized it. When people tried to point out the errors in his criticisms, they were interrupted by people shouting,” Ask a question”. Sullivan was there to hear what his constituents thought, but apparently his supporters did not want to hear anything good about the President.

 Gridlock: Congressman Sullivan likened Obama to a football coach who gives a great locker room talk but doesn’t win. It was a bad analogy as the coach cannot win without cooperation from the players, and many players in Congress seem more interested in beating the coach than winning for the country. Every winning team needs a reasonable budget, but many Congressmen have insisted on cutting taxes and 206 legislators, Sullivan included, have signed Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes. He blamed the President and the Democrats in the Senate for the gridlock, saying that the house had sent the Senate 26 bills that were not enacted. However, most of those bills contained a “poison pill”. For instance, H.R. 3630, the badly needed Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act of 2011, also had a provision to delay implementation of the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, to hinder the EPA, and to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. It is hardly fair to blame the Senate when they are not sent clean bills.

 Energy : Congressman Sullivan said that we needed the XL pipeline to create jobs and claimed that it would create hundreds of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly – and that the only problem was just a few miles through Nebraska wetlands. The problems are actually much greater.  They involve destruction of the boreal forests in Canada, pollution of Canadian rivers, acquiring the water and energy needed to process tar sands, and the carbon emissions the project would cause. Then, it is still not clear how many jobs it will actually create, who will profit from the project, and whether much of the oil will be shipped to foreign countries, possibly without being taxed as some of the refineries are in a tax-free zone.

 The Congressman said he has introduced legislation encouraging the development of natural gas as a fuel. He pointed out that natural gas provides about three times as much energy and costs much less than gasoline. Natural gas is plentiful in Oklahoma and developing the infrastructure to use it as a fuel would help Oklahoma’s economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. That is about the only positive contribution that Congressman Sullivan has made on environmental issues. Using natural gas would also significantly decrease our carbon emissions – but the Congressman did not mention that as he does not accept the scientific research on climate change. His supporters claim to be conservatives, but it is hard to imagine how they could support someone who is not also a conservationist. Congressman Sullivan scored a 9% on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard (page 52).

Audience Questions: The wife of a veteran told of the problems her husband had getting help from the Veterans Administration and asked if Sullivan could help. Congressman Sullivan said he would see what he could do. I hope he can help that veteran, but it is not likely that all the veterans needing help will get it if we cut the budget as Congressman Sullivan wanted. The veteran was certainly a good man, and when pressed to speak, he said that it would really help if people would recycle more. He pointed out that we throw away a lot of things that are still useful and that by recycling them we could create a lot of jobs and save our resources.

 Another woman complained that the EPA’s rules about Freon were making it difficult to get the refrigerant needed for their air-conditioning business. Congressman Sullivan took it as an opportunity to criticize the EPA and the Obama administration, apparently unaware that those rules had been signed into law by President Reagan.

A CPA in the audience brought it to the Congressman’s attention that the low interest rates were hurting people who had their nest egg in savings accounts and CDs. He also pointed out that the mandatory IRA withdrawals required at age 70 1/2 are making people withdraw the money that they may need to save for later in life. The Congressman agreed that some changes need to be made there.

 When the Congressman was asked about who he would like to see as the Republican presidential candidate, he said he would support whoever could beat President Obama. A member of the audience tried to point out that there were other things more important than beating Obama, and that the President and his wife were good role models and examples of family values. She was almost drowned out by disagreements from the audience.

 Entitlements: There was a time when Republicans were fiscal and environmental conservatives. Congressman Sullivan said he wanted to cut what he calls “entitlement programs”, but one of his own supporters set him straight by pointing out that those were “earned benefits”, not entitlements. I want my children and grandchildren have the same benefits I did, and I want them to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and a beautiful Earth to enjoy. They are entitled to that.

Research Credit: Barbara Moore

(c) 2012 J.C. Moore

Congressman John Sullivan's Town Hall Meeting

Sat ,31/12/2011

Election season is coming up, and many of our representatives are, or will be, holding town hall meetings. Congressman John Sullivan (R-OK) held  one of his town hall meetings in Sand Springs on November 7, 2011. He told us that things have been crazy lately in Washington, and he illustrated that by talking about the budget.

 Budget: A Supercommittee has been formed with the goal of reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion. Congressman Sullivan said he did not think that was enough and he supports a balanced budget amendment, with the goal of cutting $4 trillion from the budget. He said that we would have to cut entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a list of other programs that mostly help the poor and the middle class.  He said he supports raising the age or cutting the benefits for Social Security, but that those over 55 should not worry, as the proposed changes would only affect those younger than 55.

 A member of the audience commented that he did not think that was fair, as he was just under 55. When the Congressman was asked if he would consider raising revenue rather than making such deep cuts in spending, he said he could not support raising taxes. That is not surprising as he and 276 Legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, making it almost impossible for Congress to raise taxes. Any reasonable effort to balance the budget will require tax increases as well as spending cuts. Congress is trying to fight the budget battle with one hand tied behind its back.

 Congressman Sullivan also criticized the budget submitted by the President, saying that no one would vote for it and even Harry Reid voted against it. A member of the audience pointed out that Harry Reid changed his vote for procedural reasons and asked what the Senate’s vote was. The congressman replied he did not know. The records show that the President’s budget passed the Senate by a vote of 51 to 47, but not enough to overcome a filibuster. Harry Reid changed his vote as a procedural move so that it might be brought up again later.

 Banking reform: Congressman Sullivan said he could not support unneeded regulations and that the Dodd Frank law should be repealed because “it hurts small banks”. That is surprising, as the Dodd Frank bill was applauded by the Independent Community Bankers of America who said it would “level the regulatory and competitive playing field for community banks.”

Energy: The Congressman said he has introduced legislation encouraging the development of natural gas as a fuel. He pointed out that natural gas provides about three times as much energy and costs much less than gasoline. Natural gas is plentiful in Oklahoma and developing the infrastructure to use it as a fuel would help Oklahoma’s economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Using natural gas would also significantly decrease our carbon emissions – but the Congressman did not mention that as he does not accept the scientific research on climate change.

 EPA: Congressman Sullivan was quite critical of the EPA and stated he has introduced legislation that would require the EPA to do a cost-benefit analysis for every rule it makes. His legislation would create a huge amount of paperwork for the EPA and would make its job impossible to do, which seems to be his goal. Perhaps Congressman Sullivan could help by including a value for human life in his bill, as the EPA says slashing toxic emissions would prevent many premature deaths. The American Lung Association  estimates that the EPA’s proposed  guidelines could prevent 38,000 heart attacks and premature deaths, 1.5 million cases of acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma, and 2.7 million days of missed work or school. The public agrees that the EPA should be setting standards to protect our health, not Congress. A recent poll found that more than two-thirds of registered voters supported EPA setting strong air pollution standards.

 Jobs: The Congressman spent considerable time criticizing the job creation efforts and the economic policies of the President, particularly the stimulus program. When he declared that the government could not create jobs, someone the audience asked him about the CCC and the WPA, which created jobs during the Great Depression and provided improvements in the infrastructure, such as creating the REA. The Congressman answered with a long criticism of the stimulus package, which he finished by claiming that the stimulus package had not created one job.

 A school administrator in the audience said that there were a number of jobs saved in education by the stimulus money and that the cuts to the school budget would’ve been much worse without it. Interestingly, the records show that District 1 in Oklahoma, Congressman Sullivan’s district, received $463 million in stimulus money which directly created 280 jobs. That did not include jobs indirectly created or jobs that were saved, such as the teaching jobs.

 Services: When asked about cuts to mental health services, the Congressman rather surprised us all by saying that one fourth of all Oklahomans have some form of mental illness. The Congressman said he supports mental health programs, efforts to help soldiers with PTSD, and programs that help those with substance abuse. However, it is rather difficult to see where money would come from to support those programs if the budget were cut by $4 trillion.

 2012: The 1st District covers the population centers in the northeast part of Oklahoma, mostly Tulsa and north to Bartlesville. We certainly appreciate Congressman Sullivan taking time to share his comments with us and answer our questions. Some of the things the Congressman said were of concern to the author, as you can discern from his comments. As the 2012 elections near, Oklahoma voters need to weigh carefully what Congressman Sullivan says and how he votes in order to decide if we should return him to Washington.

Co-authorship credit: Barbara Moore

(c) 2011 J.C. Moore

Is Grover Norquist Helping Your State Go Broke?

Thu ,06/10/2011

Tax Cuts: Though it sounds good to be against taxes, fiscal responsibility may require that taxes be raised, particularly after they have been cut beyond what is prudent. Because of the reduced revenue in Oklahoma caused by the 2004 state tax cuts, it has become very difficult for the state to meet its financial obligations. In spite of that, another tax cut that was set to be triggered when state revenues improved by 4%, will go into effect in 2012. Astoundingly, that tax cut was triggered only because the state revenue had fallen far below the amount needed to fund the state’s needs adequately. Oklahoma is not able to adequately fund K-12 education, higher education, infrastructure, transportation, public health services, public safety, and other services. Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of all the states in poverty, public health, education, crime, and infrastructure repair, yet the legislature has engineered another tax cut . While the tax cuts were touted as a way to lure businesses to the state, it is difficult to see why a business would want to move to a state where its management and employees would have to live in substandard conditions.

Oklahoma Taxes: Although it is easy to cut taxes in Oklahoma, it  is very difficult to raise them. Raising taxes requires either a three fourths majority in both houses of the legislature or approval by a referendum.  It is very difficult to convince voters that they should vote to increase taxes upon themselves. Tax decisions are best decided by the legislatures, who are charged by the Constitution with budgeting adequately for the needs of the state. However, it is unlikely that Oklahoma would ever get a three fourths majority to raise taxes as Oklahoma’s  Governor, Lt. Governor, 7 Senators( of 48), and 26 House members( of 101)  have pledged away their responsibility to raise needed revenue by signing Grover Norquist’s  Americans for Tax Reform Pledge.

Norquist’s   Pledge is not as much about reform as one might expect. The true nature of the anti-tax organization was revealed when Norquist claimed it was a violation of the Pledge to close tax loopholes for companies that outsource American jobs overseas. Apparently, Norquist has set himself up as the sole interpreter of what the Pledge means, and he uses it to intimidate those who have signed the pledge into following his wishes. He first said that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire was not really a tax increase, then reversed his position, claimed he misspoke earlier, then claimed anyone voting to let the cuts expire would be violating the Pledge. He also claimed that Sen. Tom Coburn violated the Pledge when he supported ending the subsidies for ethanol, which have raised food prices and been disadvantageous to Oklahoma farmers. Grover Norquist, who was not elected, and whose name many would not even not recognize, has become a power broker in our national and state governments.

Oklahoma’s Constitution: Still, the responsibility rests with the elected representatives.  In Oklahoma, there is a prohibition against our elected Representatives signing such a pledge. The Oklahoma Constitution, says in Article X, Section 5: under Surrender of Power of Taxation :

“ A. Except as otherwise provided by this section, the power of taxation shall never be surrendered, suspended, or contracted away. “

There are no provisions in the section exempting Oklahoma’s elected representatives from abiding by the restriction stated in “A.”  Clearly, signing the Pledge is a violation of the Oklahoma Constitution, which the legislators have sworn to uphold. 

Your Representatives:  US Senators and Congressmen are important at the state level as they are considered to be leaders in our respective states. Norquist claims 235 US Representatives and 41 US Senators have signed  his Pledge. In doing so, they have clearly given up their responsibility as our elected representatives.   If your state is unable to meet its financial obligations, those at the state level who have taken the anti-tax pledge are listed in this article.  Also, those in the US Legislature who have signed the pledge are listed here. You may wish to check see who from your state has signed the pledge and contact them. Since Norquist claims that signing the pledge is binding into perpetuity, I would suggest that we make sure none of the signers are re-elected.

 

The Oklahoma Lists: Below is a list of those who have signed the pledge in Oklahoma. If anyone is listed who has not signed the pledge or has had their name removed, please notify the author in a comment on this article.

Oklahoma:  

Gov. Mary Fallin

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb

 

7 Senators (of 48)

Cliff Aldridge (S-42)

Josh Brecheen (S-6)

Bill Brown (S-36)

Sean Burrage (S-2)

Kim David (S-18)

David Holt (S-30)

Jonathan Nichols (S-15)

 

26 House members (of 101)

Gus Blackwell (H-61)

Mike Christian (H-93)

 Josh Cockroft (H-27)

David Dank (H-85)

Lee R. Denny (H-33)

David Derby (H-74)

George Faught (H-14)

Corey Holland (H-51)

Charlie Joyner (H-95)

Sally Kern (H-84)

Charles Key (H-90)

Randy McDaniel (H-83)

Jason W. Murphey (H-31)

Charles Ortega (H-52)

Leslie Osborn (H-47)

Mike Reynolds (H-91)

Mike Ritze (H-80)

Dustin Roberts (H-21)

Sean Roberts (H-36)

Mike Sanders (H-59)

Earl Sears (H-11)

Colby Schwartz (H-43)

Randy Terrill (H-53)

Sue Tibbs (H-23)

John Trebilcock (H-98)

Paul Wesselhoft (H-54)

 

Six of Oklahoma’s seven  US Legislators have signed Norquist’s  Pledge. Those are:

Senators: Sen. Tom Coburn* (R), Sen Jim Inhofe (R)

 Representatives: John Sullivan (R), Frank Lucas (R), Tom Cole (R), and James Lankford (R).

* In all fairness, Senator Coburn has worked on a bi-partisan budget solution and recently drew Grover Norquist’s ire by suggesting we might have to raise revenue.

(c) 2011 J.C. Moore

Research credit:  Barbara Moore

Climate Change: Extreme Weather and Wildfires

Fri ,19/08/2011

2011 Wildfire Terlton OK

In 1998, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Treat which would have limited the release of greenhouse gases, primarily CO2, into the atmosphere. The refusal was based mainly on the highly inflated financial costs, without adequately considering the costs of inaction. On a per capita basis the US emits six times as much CO2 as any other country. Without our participation and leadership, the world has failed to stem the release of CO2 into the air, and scientists tell us that this is leading to a warmer Earth, more extreme weather, crop failure, droughts, and wildfires. We have  certainly experienced many of those things recently and it should make us think about what our failure to ratify the Kyoto Treaty may mean to us.

Three weeks ago the local Cleveland American’s front-page story was about the heat wave and the drought. Channel 6 Weather reported that this year Oklahoma set a record for highest temperatures of any state, ever. Recently, NASA reported this has been the hottest decade since records began in 1880, with 2010 and 2005 tied for the hottest years. A recent poll of climate scientists found that 97% of those active in research agree that the Earth is getting warmer and the main factor is man’s release of carbon dioxide into the air. The other 3% of the scientists get enough publicity to keep the public confused, especially since the climate scientists cannot claim certainty in their predictions, but only increased chances.

A recent paper from the University of Colorado predicted that global warming would cause higher probabilities of extreme weather, heat waves, droughts, crop failure, and wildfires. We’ve certainly seen all that happen this year. Last week, the Cleveland American’s front page story was on the devastating wildfires in the surrounding Pawnee County. Around 15,000 acres of our county burned, 40 homes when up in flames, one person died, and many were injured.  It stretched the resources of our emergency services to the limit and had it not been for the heroic efforts of our firefighters, many of them volunteers, the devastation would have been much worse.

Skeptical scientists, and many of our politicians, dispute the scientific evidence and claim there is not really a problem. They say that efforts to stop global warming will cause us too much inconvenience and expense. We might want to think about how inconvenient and expensive it is for us to lose our crops, homes, and in some cases our loved ones?

Global Warming: Media Bias and the Misinformation Pipeline

Thu ,18/08/2011

 

The Scientific Consensus: All the major scientific organizations in the world have endorsed a  statement similar to that of the American Chemical Society:

”Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles. There is very little room for doubt that observed climate trends are due to human activities. The threats are serious and action is urgently needed to mitigate the risks of climate change.” 

  This urgent message continues to be mainly ignored by the public and our politicians. This seems strange as scientist’s trustworthiness is  highly rated  by the public, with 84% having a favorable view of scientists .  In spite of the scientist’s warning, a  Gallup poll found American’ s concern about global warming has fallen from just three years ago, when 66%  said they were worried about the problem, to only 51% today   A recent CNN  poll  found that 97% of scientists who are actively engaged in research in climate science agree that global warming is occurring and the primary cause is man’s activities. There is clearly a scientific consensus on the matter, but the public seems confused on the issue. That is because the 3% of the climate scientists who do not agree with the scientific consensus receive an inordinately large amount of publicity.

The Misinformation Pipeline: While skepticism based upon reason makes science stronger, many of the skeptics do not have that as a goal.  Many skeptics publish their articles in rather obscure journals where they are not peer-reviewed by competent climate scientists.  Occasionally, one of the skeptics has a paper published in a major journal, and though some of these make major contributions, many of them are later found to contain incorrect assumptions and errors. The errors are usually pointed out in letters and articles in the journals, and should require retraction or correction, but some of the skeptics have refused to do so, and instead launch attacks upon their critics. While other climate scientists are well aware of the errors, the general public is not, and they often remember the controversy  as evidence that ” the science is not settled”. These controversies, and erroneous results, are often delivered to the public through a well-funded misinformation pipeline. The pipeline carries the misinformation from the uncorrected or obscure journals articles to blog sites, through biased institutes and think tanks, and often into respectable newspapers and magazines. Spin is added along the way and the headlines are made more and more sensational as the information moves along the pipeline. What comes out of the pipeline often bears little resemblance even to the original article, but that matters little as the purpose of the pipeline is to spread doubt.

Speed is of the essence as it is important to get the message “out there” before it can be debunked. Because, once “out there”, it is  difficult to correct it in the minds of the public. One good example of this is the controversy that arose over an article by Steig, et. al. which had been featured on the cover of Nature. Steig found that over the last fifty years, the Antarctic had been getting warmer by 0.1 C per decade. A year later, an article with the headline “O’Donnell et al 2010 Refutes Steig et al 2009″ appeared on many news and blog sites. However, O’Donnell’s paper was nowhere to be found. The source of the headline was traced to skeptic Steve McIntyre’s ClimateAudit website. It turned out that McIntyre was one of the authors of the paper, and he had circulated the phony headline over two weeks before O’Donnell’s paper was published. Now, that is fast. And O’Donnell’s article hardly refuted Steig’s, as he also found that Antartica was warming, but a slightly different geographical pattern.  

Tracing a Path: A more recent example was an article that appeared on MSNBC’s Newsvine blog site. The headline read:  New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism – Yahoo! News and it had the summary :

 The underlying physics does not support the James Hansen CO2 model and nor does the data. End of Story.”

That is certainly not accurate, as Hansen, the director of NASA, has published many peer-reviewed articles  based upon NASA’s data that show that CO2 is primarily responsible for global warming. It was unlikely that a single article published by climate skeptic Roy Spencer in the rather obscure journal, Remote Sensing, would blow a hole in anything. Nor was it the end of the story.  Tracing the story backwards shows how misinformation about global warming is rapidly spread through the news media. I reported this story to Newsvine as inaccurate and mis-categorized. The headline is sensationalized, and no reasonable news story would describe climate scientists as “alarmists” 15 times. However, Newsvine did not act as it was categorized as “news” by Yahoo!News. I contacted Yahoo!News and explained that it was a violation of journalistic ethics to categorize an opinion article as news. I received a reply quickly, but it mainly passed the buck to Forbes, saying:

“We are not responsible for the content contained within news articles or headlines from outside source providers. If you would like to report incorrect information provided in a news article from one of these outside source providers, please contact the publisher at www.forbes.com. “ I replied to Yahoo! News, suggesting that if someone there couldn’t make a decision about the matter, they might wish to change their name to Yahoo! News and Opinion so they would be covered in the future. I also sent a complaint to Forbes, but apparently Forbes is not very concerned as they have yet to reply. (1)

Forbes. The article in Forbes was written by James Taylor, who is listed as a fellow at the Heartland Institute. You may remember James Taylor, as he wrote a number of articles for the tobacco industry suggesting that secondhand smoke was not harmful. His article in Forbes was categorized as a news article since he claimed the information came from a “press release”. But when I clicked on the link to the “press release”, I ended up at a blog site run by Roger Pielke, a proverbial climate skeptic. There the supposed “news release” was titled: “Comments On The Paper ‘On the Misdiagnosis Of Surface Temperature Feedbacks From Variations In Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance’ By Spencer and Braswell 2011” . I suppose James Taylor considers Roger Pielke’s  comments as news, but not everyone feels that way. And, in case the reader missed the significance of  Pielke’s comments, underneath them he recommended a post on Roy Spencer’s blog site titled: ” Is Gore’s Missing Heat Really Hiding in the Deep Ocean?” Wait a minute! It was Spencer who wrote the original journal article and his blog article would indicate that Spencer might have a bias.

Spencer’s Paper: Spencer’s paper was published in a normally reputable but little-known journal, Remote Sensing . The article was listed as being peer-reviewed, but is unlikely that the article was peer-reviewed by anyone with an expertise in climate science. As soon as climate scientists had time to analyze the article, they found a number of errors. According to Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas A&M University: “He’s taken an incorrect model, he’s tweaked it to match observations, but the conclusions you get from that are not correct.” And, an analysis by climate scientists Trenberth and  Fasullo says in part:  “The model has no realistic ocean, no El Niño, and no hydrological cycle, and it was tuned to give the result it gave. The bottom line is that there is NO merit whatsoever in this paper.” That about sums it up. *

Timeline: The article may have had little scientific merit,  but the misinformation pipeline that delivered it was certainly efficient.  In this case, a paper titled “On the Misdiagnosis Of Surface Temperature Feedbacks From Variations In Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance“, with significant errors, was published in Remote Sensing on July 25. It appeared as a “Comments on …”  article on Roger Pielke’s blog site on July 26, then passed through the Heartland Institute where it somehow became a “press release”. Along the way, it morphed into James Taylor’s article, New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism,  which appeared July 27 in Forbes, where it was now categorized as a news article. It then appeared on  July 28 on Yahoo!News and MSNBC’s Newsvine, again mis-categorized as news, with the title New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism – Yahoo! News.  Three days after publication, an erroneous and sensationalized version was on the major news network. Since then, a number of other blog sites and news sources have picked up the sensationalized version of the article and possibly millions of people have read it. Very few of those will read the climate scientist’s opinion of the article.The article will soon sink into obscurity,  but it will have accomplished it’s purpose, which was to spread doubt about climate change. And that’s why the public is confused.

Correcting the problem: The solution is for the news media to follow journalism’s ethics and to avoid biasMedia Bias  refers to censorship or propagandism on the part of particular news sources, where content is framed in the light of a preconceived agenda, such as favoring a station’s corporate economic interests, having a political slant, or sensationalism that tends to distort news to make it a better commercial “product.” The business community considers legislation that would reduce our carbon emissions to be antibusiness(2). Many business newspapers, magazines, and journals reflect that bias and even the leaders such as Investors Business Daily, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes are often biased toward the skeptic’s position. The bias shows up in the news stories selected, opinions mis-categorized as news, selecting a disproportionate number of skeptics articles for opinion pages, and writing or allowing sensational headlines on the opinion articles. Yes, the editors have complete control over what op-ed pieces and letters are published and they often write the headlines for opinion articles. An egregious example of this is a Wall street Journal article titled “Science Has Spoken, Global Warming Is a Myth”. The article turned out to be a hoax , but it came right before the Senate was to consider the Kyoto Treaty and may have influenced the Senate to reject ratification. While the editors might not have known that the article was based on flawed science, they certainly should have realized that two biochemists, who had little experience in climate science, could not speak for all science on such an important matter. 

Journalism’s Ethics: Unethical practices by new sources is a great disservice to its readers and, in this case, to the entire world. It should certainly be expected that  journalists and news media follow the Ethical code of The Society of Professional Journalists, who believe that it is the ethical duty of the journalist to:

Seek the Truth and Report it: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Be Accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

It is a principle of professional ethics that anyone who practices the profession, whether a member of the professional organization or not, is bound by the code of ethics of the profession. In this case, the ethical code would apply to anyone who claims to reports the news, even bloggers.

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore

* Note added 9/3/2011:  In the latest issue of Remote Sensing, the editor, Dr. Wolfgang Wagner, resigned and issued a public apology for this article saying, “With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements.” “The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers.“

(1) It is a serious violation of journalism ethics to represent an opinion article such as this as a news story. Please let Yahoo know how you feel about this by reporting it as abuse at this  link >>  

 It may also be reported as an ethical violation to Forbes at readers@forbes.com .

(2) That is not really the case. The LA Times reported that a group of International investors, responsible for more than $15 trillion in assets, issued a global warming warning. (2) They called for the world’s nations, particularly the United States, to move decisively to combat climate change or face the possibility of economic disruptions even worse than the global recession of the last two years. They also pointed out that “The economic opportunities are enormous for nations with the foresight to seize them while the risks of inaction are potentially catastrophic.”

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore

Sen. Inhofe and the Three, Maybe Four, Polar Bears

Mon ,15/08/2011

Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Senator from Oklahoma who never met an oil company executive he didn’t like, often proclaims that “Global warming is a hoax.” He often uses his Senate position on the Environment and Public Works Committee to attack climate science and to promote the interests of oil companies. He is upset that the Polar bear was put on the threatened species list, which protects the Polar bear’s habitat. Recently, Senator Inhofe sent a letter to Mary Kendall, the acting inspector general at the U.S. Department of Interior, pushing for further investigation of Dr. Charles Monnett, who Sen. Inhofe blames for the Polar bear being put on the threatened species list, although that is not the case.  It is clear what Sen. Inhofe  was thinking when he proclaimed, “As a result, critical habitat for the Polar bear was designated, which added additional layers of onerous regulations to oil and gas development in 187,000 square miles of land in Alaska.”

The September 2004 issue of National Geographic has pictures of the Polar region taken in 1979 and 2003, which shows that over that period, the extent of the polar sea ice had declined 30%. Polar bears, whose hunting grounds are the sea ice, now have to swim many miles to reach the ice – when in the past they could simply walk onto it. Dr. Monnett, who is studying the Polar bear population, counted four Polar bears who had drowned because they were caught in a storm trying to swim to the sea ice to hunt. He reported that incident in a paper on the declining habitat of the Polar bear, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal. However his survey report only reported on the drowning of three bears, because only three were in the survey area. That is a reasonable explanation for the discrepancy, however, it led to a controversy about him inflating the number of bears in his research article.

Though that happened five years ago, the Interior Department has been put under political pressure to investigate the matter and they are doing so. As Sen. Inhofe wrote in his letter, “As ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), I am committed to ensuring that scientific integrity is upheld in the federal decision-making processes”. If he really means that, perhaps he should wait for the investigation, which is hopefully being done by unbiased scientists under proper procedures, to be completed before jumping to conclusions.

The Polar bear has become a symbol of all we may lose by failing to address our pollution problems adequately. The charges against Dr. Monnett are a politically motivated witch-hunt designed to punish scientists who disagree with Sen. Inhofe’s views on global warming. The polar bears were put on the threatened species list, not because of Dr. Monnett’s work, but because their habitat is clearly declining. As their habitat disappears, so will the Polar bear. It is something man should think about – as our habitat is deteriorating, also.

(c) 2011 J.C. Moore

Congressman Lucas' Town Hall Meetings II

Thu ,04/08/2011

Congressman Frank Lucas (R – OK) held a town hall meeting at the Bristow Library on April 18, 2011. As in his town hall meeting in Hominy , he reported that: the war in Iraq is winding down, but that Afghanistan still continues to be a quagmire without a definite ending in sight.  There is concern about our role in Libya, and in spite of the criticism, the President does have power to take limited military action without a formal declaration of war. He reported that the Legislature has become even more divided and partisan over the last year, and it is becoming very difficult to carry out the business of government.

When asked whether Social Security would go broke, Congressman Lucas explained that, over the years, the surplus collected has been put in U.S. Treasury bonds. Though the government has borrowed against the surplus, it must be repaid and will be available to make future payments.  After the trust fund is exhausted, Social Security will pay benefits as money is collected, and benefits may be reduced by 20 to 30% unless the Social Security system is changed to extend the trust fund.

Comment: A little research after the meeting showed that the trust fund is expected to be solvent until about 2034 but that a few tweaks, such as reducing benefits, raising the retirement age, or raising the cap on FICA contributions, will make this trust fund solvent to about 2080. Americans overwhelmingly support raising the cap on FICA contributions over the other options.

One gentleman was upset about the cost of his health insurance and of Medicare. He noted that the creation of the Medicare Advantage Plans had added about 14% to the cost of the program. He described a recent surgery in some detail, the point being that Medicare was charged $3000 for one small piece of tubing because Congress had voted that Medicare could not negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. His point was that Congressman Lucas had voted for both the Advantage plan and for the ban on negotiating prices.

One constituent complemented Congressman Lucas on the Tulsa World article where he defended raising the debt limit so that the U.S. would not have its credit rating lowered, which would be disastrous for the country. However, he also pointed out that Congressman Lucas had voted for extending the tax cuts for wealthy citizens, costing $800 billion, and also for the $610 billion in spending cuts spending cuts, which may cost 500,000 American jobs. The congressman commented that the mood in Congress was to cut taxes and reduce spending. There were several questions about  agriculture, such as whether there would be a carbon tax, whether the EPA would limit dust, and about the animal ID program. Congressman Lucas, who will be the chairman of the Farm Committee next year, said those are all things that the committee would likely examine.

Comment: Climate scientists have pointed out that there is increasing evidence that climate change is causing increasing incidences of extreme weather, such as droughts and storms, which may put our farms production and food supply at risk.  Congress has recently turned down a motion that the Agriculture Department examine the risk to our food supply and Congressman Lucas voted with the nays.

The discussion was lively and it was good that we could ask questions and express our concerns to Congressman Lucas. The third district covers a large area, the Western two thirds of the state, and we certainly appreciate Congressman Lucas taking time to visit with us. Some of his answers were of concern to the author, as you can discern from his comments, and further information will be provided about Congressman Lucas’s views as the 2012 elections near.

Bits and Pieces 7: The President and the National Debt

Tue ,02/08/2011

This link is to a Tulsa World Cartoon showing Congress playing President Obama like a fiddle. Many who commented on it used it as an excuse to criticize Obama. They need to stop and think.

Yes, Congress is playing Obama like a fiddle. However, it reminds me of the story of Solomon. When two women came before him, both claiming the same son, Solomon ordered the boy cut in two and each woman given half. When one woman, cried “No”, she would give up her claim, Solomon awarded her the child, as she obviously cared more for it.

When Congress demanded Obama extend the tax cuts or they would cut benefits to the unemployed, Obama compromised. When Congress would have let us default on our debts, causing untold damage to our financil institutions and our citizens, Obama compromised. You may criticize Obama for compromising, but I think it is clear who cares more for America.