Another Quick Reply to the Roanoke Argument

I know: I’m obsessing. But leftists really think they’ve hit upon a genius line of reasoning here, and they need to be told ad infinitum that they are wrong.

This time around, I’m going to use moral philosophy to refute the Roanoke argument. Alas, I can’t claim that the theme of this post is a Stephanie original; I’m actually pulling these ideas from a recent article Ismael Hernandez wrote in the Catholic Crisis Magazine. However, I’m going to try to simplify Hernandez’ argument as much as possible so that anyone can understand it.

Consider the following situation: Tom works at an auto parts store. On a typical business day, he sells a woman a bottle of antifreeze. Unfortunately, said woman has a nefarious goal in mind: She plans to poison her husband by mixing the antifreeze into his favorite jello. Days later, Tom reads in the paper that a neighbor has died unexpectedly, and the local Dr. G has found evidence of antifreeze poisoning in his kidneys. Question: Should we accuse Tom of being an accessory to murder? After all, his antifreeze was the murder weapon.

The obvious answer to that query, of course, is no. Tom had no way of knowing how his product was going to be used. Similarly, while the government does maintain the roads, the postal service, the Patent Office, the international ports, etc., it has no earthly way of knowing what each American citizen will do with those resources; therefore, we cannot hold it responsible for the remote effects of its activity. If we’re going to credit the government for a man’s prosperous business, shouldn’t we also credit the government for the Unabomber? After all, Ted Kaczynski used the postal service to kill his victims.

No — the only person responsible for the actions of Ted Kaczynski is Ted Kaczynski. It doesn’t matter which government services he used to perpetrate his crimes. In like fashion, the most morally relevant cause of a business owner’s success is the initiative and hard work of the business owner.

The Hollow Republic

I think Yuval Levin finally nails down what I was trying to say in my first take-down of Obama’s Roanoke speech:

The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.

But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom.

This difference of opinion about mediating institutions is no trifling matter. It gets at a profound and fundamental difference between the Left and the Right. The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.

Go forth and read the whole thing!

The Hollow Republic

Responding to Annoying Liberal Remarks on Facebook, XIII: On Epistemic Closure and Liberalism

I’m thinking, now, that I may have to stay off Facebook until well after the election. All it does is inspire incandescent rage at how utterly impervious to reason certain people are. Before I go, though, there is one last individual I need to (rhetorically) destroy. Said individual is a “friend-of-a-friend” with whom I have tangled TWICE in the past two days, and he is a textbook example of a concept known as “epistemic closure.”

What’s “epistemic closure,” you may ask? Basically, it’s a fancy term describing a reliance on too few sources of information. Liberals love to declare that we conservatives are sufferers, but such claims are patently ridiculous. We get exposed to liberal thought all the bloody time. We can’t avoid liberals even if we tried because of the left’s stranglehold on the engines of our culture. Can liberals, meanwhile, say that they’ve sat down to peruse the National Review? Well, the aforementioned “friend-of-a-friend” certainly can’t.

(Cut for extreme length.)

I first ran into the individual in question – whom I will dub “Close-Minded Liberal,” or CML for short – in a discussion about Chick-Fil-A. As you might expect, CML was absolutely convinced that everyone who lined up for a chicken sandwich on the 1st was there to express their gay-hating bigotry. I jumped in to make the demonstrably true claim (see also: yours truly, Andrew Klavan, Glenn Reynolds, the posters at Gay Patriot, and the many people quoted in articles covering the Appreciation Day) that many people who are, at the very least, sympathetic when it comes to the gay rights movement have also come out in support of Chick-Fil-A. I then noted that the most likely animating impulse for the huge turn-out was the over-reach of certain liberal politicians. His response, which he has since repeated many times, can be paraphrased thusly:

The people who are framing this as a free speech issue are misguided. This is a free market issue. People were exercising their right to free speech in boycotting Chick-Fil-A, and if it hurt Dan Cathy’s pocketbook, tough titties. The liberal mayors only complicated things.

I didn’t respond to this because I was already out of patience regarding the whole Chick-Fil-A issue, but here’s what I would’ve said if I wasn’t tapped out:

Let’s leave aside your laughable belief that your precious boycott did anything significant to hurt the chain’s sales numbers. (Even before the Appreciation Day was called, the restaurant here in Woodbridge was doing brisk business regardless of the bad publicity.) Instead, let’s tackle the other claims. First of all, you strongly imply that social conservatives are simply objecting to the idea of a boycott because they don’t understand what free speech actually means. This is false. We don’t dispute the pro-gay left’s right to hold a boycott. We do, however, reserve our right to comment on what that boycott – and in particular, the deeply misleading liberal commentary promoting it – says about your potential for fascistic overreach (not to mention your apparent inability to understand and tolerate people who disagree with you). Over and over again, I’ve seen people like you advance the following line of reasoning:

People who hate gays are against gay marriage.
Dan Cathy is against gay marriage.
Therefore, Dan Cathy hates gay people.

This is what is known as a converse error (if you’re in geometry class) or the fallacy of the undistributed middle (if you’re a logician). The majority of people who have doubts about gay marriage are simply religious people who hate and fear no one. Perhaps they are misguided – I, for one, am not completely convinced that’s the case – but your attempts to involuntarily baptize them all into the Westboro Baptist Church will guaran-damn-tee that you will persuade no one to rethink his position. It has also convinced many that your true intention is to quash each American’s freedom of religious observance. Sure — you technically have a right to hold a boycott and call us all bigots for disagreeing. But we have a right to worry out loud about what you might do, given your hostile attitude, if you were to gain real political power. It’s not an utterly unbridgeable gap between declaring a viewpoint anathema and acting to legally suppress it.

And actually, in reality, the left’s totalitarian impulse can no longer be described as merely “potential.” The Obama administration has already realized that potential through their contraception mandate. So if we’re being a little hypersensitive, such apprehension is certainly not based on nothing. The president and his coterie are telling me that I while I can worship God in a Catholic Church every Sunday, I certainly can’t live my faith the other days of the week. How can I not fear for my constitutional rights?

Which brings me to your attempt to minimize the role of Mayors Menino and Emanuel. I’m sorry, but no — there is good reason to believe that their actions are what primarily drove the turn out the other day. As far as I can tell from looking at the dates, Huckabee did not call for a Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day until after Menino announced his intention to block Chick-Fil-A’s expansion into Boston. There were complaints about the pro-gay left before, yes, but once the aforementioned politicians got into the act, that’s when the conservative response exploded exponentially — and rightfully so, because Menino and Emanuel were now proposing that municipal governments use their power to issue business licenses and zoning permits as a stick to beat people like Cathy for not toeing the liberal party line. Such actions would clearly violate the First Amendment, a fact already noted by several libertarian, conservative, and honest liberal commentators. The Chick-Fil-A flap is not over our right to free speech? Dishonest nonsense! You can’t arbitrarily put the mayors aside just because they inconveniently blow giant holes in your “Chick-Fil-A’s supporters are all gay bashers” narrative.

ARRRRRRRRGH! Rahm Emanuel does not represent the “free market,” you tool.

Okay — now let’s move on to the next dispute. My Facebook friend, who is a moderate liberal and a genuinely nice guy, posted one of those dumb Facebook memes that advances Obama’s Roanoke argument regarding our responsibility to the government, remarking in passing that he thinks both sides – liberal and conservative – have advanced points regarding said speech that are correct. CML immediately responded (and again, this is a paraphrase), “That’s impossible. The Republican viewpoint depends on being willfully ignorant regarding Obama’s larger point.”

Well, I leaped into the fray at once, because I can’t stand this new liberal meme that claims we all misunderstood what Obama said in my home state. Oh please, liberals. Let me call the WAAAAAAAAAAAmbulance. We conservatives understood him perfectly. Obama made the wholly banal observation that the government does a number of things that keep us safe and allow the economy to function in order to advance his perennial argument that the rich have a patriotic duty to accept higher tax rates. But as we logic freaks might say, “Non sequitur!” I already took apart much of this rhetoric a few posts ago, but since then, I’ve come up with a few more rejoinders. For example:

1. Many of the government services that liberals like to cite because they’re popular – like fire and police – are handled at the local level, not the federal level. How does it make sense for Obama to ask certain people to pay more federal taxes for things the federal government doesn’t even do?

2. In other cases, liberals commit another logical error: They automatically assume that because the government was involved in the moon shot (or some other genuine accomplishment, like the interstate highway system), we should support current and future government funding of any other “innovation” Obama and his buddies personally favor (like “green energy” or high speed bullet trains) or else be branded as “unpatriotic” and “selfish.” It is true that, in the 20th century, politicians tended to default to big government solutions. That was the high water mark for centralized, top-down “blue state model” thinking. And it’s also true that the government didn’t completely fail at everything it touched. (See also: the moon shot.) But you cannot therefore conclude that we would not have nice things like electricity and telecommunications were it not for the intervention of a 20th century-style federal bureaucracy — or that we won’t have nice things in the years to come if we slim that bureaucracy down to a more sustainable size.

3. Even if we stipulate that certain things must be handled by the federal government – and most conservatives do, by the way – that absolutely does not mean that our present government is discharging its obligatory tasks in a way that is efficient or financially smart. Duplication, waste and inertia are endemic in DC. Take something simple — like the weather. The NWS and the NOAA seem like obviously beneficial organizations. We all want to know when a hurricane is coming, right? But as SABR Matt has discussed here, here and here, even the NWS and the NOAA are weighed down with silly redundancies and out-dated technology. Why should we be satisfied with this? And why should we fork over more money to the alphabet soup when it’s clear it won’t be used wisely? I’m not saying that there aren’t excellent federal employees who honestly wish to serve the public good. I am saying, however, that the inherent characteristics of the federal bureaucracy often make it difficult for the sincere public servant to do his job. The federal government desperately needs to be audited and streamlined — and until that happens, Obama has no justification for holding his hands out.

4. Finally, while the government does perform critical functions that keep the economy moving, it also performs many non-critical duties whose consequence is to block economic growth. I was working as a secretary at a fairly large insulation company the year Sarbanes-Oxley went into effect, and holy crap was that a nightmare of epic proportions! Currently, businesses are forced to spend a great deal of time and many millions of dollars annually on crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s to avoid being hounded by government regulators — and it’s all because leftist consumer advocates and environmentalists want us to chase the utopian fantasy that is zero percent risk. In the same vein, if you’re currently unemployed and you decide you want to sell cookies out of your kitchen, hot dogs in the park, or lemonade on your driveway, forget it. The government will eventually come crashing down on you because you don’t have a “license.” Yet the arrogant left wants us to bow down and thank the government for making our prosperity possible? Bull. At best, the government harms as often as it helps. (By the way, Sarah Hoyt has written a very good post on this very subject entitled “Of Fists and Noses.” You should read it.)

Now, in dealing with CML, I didn’t say all of the above. After all, Facebook is hardly an ideal platform for lengthy explications of my political thought. What I did, do, however, was defend the idea that individual initiative matters. I noted that while thirty other students took AP Stats with Mr. W., my all time favorite teacher, only two students got 5’s on the AP exam. The students in my class all grew up in similarly situated families and had access to the same award-winning instructor, but only one other student and I got top marks. That seems to contradict this idea that we owe our success to others. In reply, CML insisted that Obama didn’t deny the importance of a successful business-person’s hard work and whined once again that I was missing the point. To that, I say, “Whatever, dude.” Granted, there was a throw-away line in there that mentioned individual initiative. But you have to take into account the overall tone of the speech — especially the passage at issue. When Obama says, “There are a lot of hard-working people out there!” he is outright mocking the ordinary (and justified) pride people take in what they’ve accomplished. When he says, “There are a lot of smart people out there!” you can hear the resentment and derision dripping from his voice. No — when I listen to that speech, I don’t hear a president who respects the business community. Even if I put the most charitable spin on this and accept that Obama didn’t completely abandon the traditional American understanding of prosperity and its roots, he certainly severely devalued said understanding.

CML also tried to lecture me about how we owe our forebears for this wonderful system they created and all the infrastructure they established. My instinctive reaction? “Kiss my ass.” (Well — that’s a printable interpretation, anyway.) I am thankful for what previous generations have done for me; if I had a time machine, I would go back and thank them right now. But that’s not what Obama is asking us to do. Instead, he is using this “legacy of previous generations” horse dung to guilt the gullible into paying for his pet boondoggles. You see, he is just so eager to play venture capitalist — even though, as the whole Solyndra disaster reveals, he has no effing clue how to recognize a viable business model. And, oh yes — while he’s at it, he also wants us to pay for an overhaul of our health care system that is almost certain to do more harm than good. This doesn’t have jack to do with preserving “American values.” It has everything to do with enriching the president’s cronies at the taxpayers’ expense.

Along the way, I also stated, accurately, that we conservatives don’t object to paying taxes for those things that are necessary. CML then tried to claim that celebrating tax evasion is the new meme sweeping the conservative movement. This was news to me. Since Obama’s inauguration, I have been reading Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, and the National Review. I’ve also frequently visited Instapundit (the indefatigable conservative/libertarian aggregator), Hot Air, PJTV (& PJ Media), Townhall, The Daily Caller and the Breitbart Feed. What’s more, I’ve read conservative books – a lot of conservative books – and have gone to conservative political conferences. In all of those places, I have never read (or heard) even so much as a sentence praising tax avoidance. So I bluntly told CML he was imagining things and challenged him to present his evidence. What did he give me? Remarks by Senator Lindsey Graham as interpreted by Think Progress and one blog post. I’ll get to the blog post in a minute, but first I want to talk about Graham, because – unlike Obama – he is misunderstood. Here’s what he actually said a few weeks ago (and I should say here that the Huffington Post deserves credit for including enough context to contradict Think Progress’ screaming headline):

“As long as it was legal, I’m OK with it,” Graham said. “I don’t blame anybody for using the tax code to their advantage. I blame us for having it so complicated and confused. Pick a rate and make people pay it.”

In the meantime, anything within the rules goes, he argued.

“It’s a game we play,” Graham said. “Every American tries to find the way to get the most deductions they can. I see nothing wrong with playing the game because we set it up to be a game.”

The senator’s solution to such gamesmanship is a major overhaul of the tax system, similar to the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan that calls for lowering rates while closing loopholes.

“I want to end the game,” Graham said. “I want to make it so simple that you know what you owe, and if you don’t pay, we’re going to whack the heck out of you…”

So what Graham is really advocating here is that we remove those cozy little tax shelters and make the tax code flatter and more predictable — yet Think Progress interprets this as “Lindsey Graham says it’s American to avoid paying taxes,” and CML interprets Think Progress’ interpretation as, “Lindsey Graham says tax evasion is awesome. Wheeee!” Good God, there are so many comprehension failures at play here that I’m pretty sure no additional comment is required.

And as for the blog post? This is when I concluded once and for all that CML deserves to be called a CML — and an imbecilic one at that. First, let me give you a chance to actually read it:

Why It Is Patriotic to Not Pay Taxes

Done? Did you laugh as hard as I did and immediately demote CML’s intelligence to moron status? The above blog post is an obviously sarcastic criticism of companies – like GM (a friend of Obama) – that engage in crony capitalism. And by the way, if you go to the homepage for that site, here’s are some of the other blog posts you might find:

Chick-Fil-A: Real Chicken, Real Hate
The Bigoted Boy Scouts of America
Republican Pattern of Lying

Hmm. Doesn’t seem like a conservative blog to me. But, to be fair, I heeded CML’s plea that I Google some appropriate strings to find more. Predictably, while I tried several variations of “It’s American/patriotic to avoid paying taxes,” I found diddly-squat beyond a bunch of liberal sites maliciously distorting the conservative argument.

Now here’s what I have seen within the conservative movement over the last few years:

This is a quite different complaint. The people who carry signs like this are not upset that they have to pay taxes; they are upset that they are being asked to pay more even though Obama and his appointees and friends have amply demonstrated that they cannot be trusted with their money. This is not a push for anarchy; it is a request, tartly phrased, that the federal government be called to account for all the tax payer dollars it’s put through the shredder. But, of course, for people like CML – people who live in the hermetically sealed Think Progress bubble – it is just so much more convenient to portray us all as selfish Randian individualists and raging homophobic bigots. It’s so tidy, you know, not to have to consider your opponents’ concerns as anything other than the ravings of lunatic idiots.

With all due lack of respect, CML: Screw off.

The New Authoritarianism

The New Authoritarianism
by Fred Siegel and Joel Kotkin @ City Journal

“I refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer,” said President Obama this week as he claimed new powers for himself in making recess appointments while Congress wasn’t legally in recess. The chief executive’s power grab in naming appointees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board has been depicted by administration supporters as one forced upon a reluctant Obama by Republican intransigence. But this isn’t the first example of the president’s increasing tendency to govern with executive-branch powers. He has already explained that “where Congress is not willing to act, we’re going to go ahead and do it ourselves.” On a variety of issues, from immigration to the environment to labor law, that’s just what he’s been doing—and he may try it even more boldly should he win reelection. This “go it alone” philosophy reflects an authoritarian trend emerging on the political left since the conservative triumph in the 2010 elections.

The president and his coterie could have responded to the 2010 elections by conceding the widespread public hostility to excessive government spending and regulation. That’s what the more clued-in Clintonites did after their 1994 midterm defeats. But unlike Clinton, who came from the party’s moderate wing and hailed from the rural South, the highly urban progressive rump that is Obama’s true base of support has little appreciation for suburban or rural Democrats. In fact, some liberals even celebrated the 2010 demise of the Blue Dog and Plains States Democrats, concluding that the purged party could embrace a purer version of the liberal agenda. So instead of appealing to the middle, the White House has pressed ahead with Keynesian spending and a progressive regulatory agenda.

And this is why we need to utterly defeat Obama and his supporters in the upcoming election. Do you want to be ruled by a group of self-appointed philosopher kings?

OMGWTFBBQPOLARBEAR:

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration
@ the UK Telegraph

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.

“The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly-paid, highly-pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.

“If ever there were an episode which demonstrates the folly of the great European project then this is it.”

Ukip MEP Paul Nuttall said the ruling made the “bendy banana law” look “positively sane”.

Seriously: What. The. Frell? I have no words. No words at all.

On the Woes of the Middle Class

As Rep. Paul Ryan noted in his recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, it is extremely misleading to speak of the “rich” and the “poor” as if they are fixed classes. In reality, most people move up and down the income scale throughout their lifespan. Kids in their teens and twenties are at the bottom because they’re just starting out in entry-level positions. People in their forties and fifties, meanwhile, have generally hit their peak earning years, so they are more likely to occupy the top brackets. Then people retire in their sixties and seventies and their income drops again. People in the fabled “1%” one year may not be there a few years later. And if you’re on the bottom? The chances are still very good that you will not be there forever.

But it is also true that we are not quite as economically mobile as we used to be. The unfocused expression of anger that is the Occupy [Your City] movement is based on something valid. We need to be very careful, though, when it comes to identifying the sources of our distress — and their potential solutions.

Today’s Ragged Dicks (that’s a Horatio Alger reference, not an insult) run up against several roadblocks on the path to success. They include:

  • Family breakdown. Success in school requires parental involvement — but due to the rising rates of divorce and illegitimacy, many well-meaning parents simply don’t have the time to look over little Johnny’s homework. And by the way, said parents also don’t have the time to ensure that Johnny gets healthy things to eat, and bad nutrition can lead to childhood obesity and inhibit cognitive development.
  • A severely dysfunctional lower education system. Our public education establishment has prioritized fads over effective instruction and union demands over our students’ well-being. Consequently, when Johnny graduates from high school (assuming he does graduate, which is not a certainty), he may still be functionally illiterate and innumerate.
  • An increasingly dysfunctional higher education system. Let’s say that Johnny manages to graduate from high school with a B average and a 1500+ on his SAT (out of 2400). At this point, he will probably apply for a student loan and go to college. But will Johnny actually learn anything while he’s there? Is a college education really worth racking up thousands of dollars of debt? That really depends on the major Johnny selects. If he earns a BS in, say, chemical engineering, it’s likely he’ll be able to find a good job when he graduates and start moving up the income ladder. But our colleges also offer an array of fruity “do you want fries with that?” majors like women’s studies and sociology — majors that don’t reflect what the outside economy actually needs. And because all student loans are guaranteed by the federal government, our institutions of higher learning feel no compunction in jacking up their tuitions to astronomical levels so they can support their own top-heavy bureaucracies. Is the Assistant Dean of Student Diversity and his staff of 37 really going to add anything to Johnny’s college experience? No, but Johnny is going to pay for them anyway.
  • The pervasive – and wrong – belief that a college degree entitles you to a comfortable middle class lifestyle. If Johnny decides to major in something useless (like sociology), he’s in for a rude shock when he graduates, as there will be no jobs available for him in his field. Now, if Johnny is suitably humble, he will take his lumps and accept any employment he can find without complaint. Unfortunately, if the Occupy [Your City] protests are any indication, humility is not something we teach in school these days. Instead, we lie to our kids and tell them that all degrees are created equal — that it’s okay to “follow your bliss.” We are breeding a generation of spoiled brats who believe a credential – any credential – erases the need for personal industry. Is it any wonder that employers are reluctant to hire young people?
  • A culture that devalues the trades. We still need plumbers and mechanics and carpenters – indeed, some employers are crying out desperately for people with that kind of experience – but these days, we’re not really encouraging kids to go to trade school. Plumbers and mechanics and carpenters can definitely earn good money and establish themselves as members of the middle class, but right now, kids hear “college, college, college!” and aren’t presented with any alternatives.
  • A regulatory structure that pushes manufacturing jobs offshore. The dose makes the poison — yet we continue to heap costly burdens on our businesses in a ridiculous quest to ensure 100% safety and environmental purity. Yell at the eeeeevil corporations all you want, but they’re building their factories in other countries because their consumer goods would be too expensive for their customers if they were manufactured here.
  • Public policies which favor big, established businesses over small and newer ones. While I understand the economic reason why our bigger corporations have moved some of their operations out of the country, I don’t think those corporations are entirely blameless here. After all, over the years, they’ve collected billions of tax-payer dollars in corporate welfare to fund politically-favored boondoggles like “green” energy. Moreover, because they have the resources to move if they need to, larger corporations tend to like regulation because it handicaps their smaller competitors. If Johnny happens to have an entrepreneurial spirit, he may have a tough time getting his new business going.
  • Burdensome property taxes. If Johnny is successful enough to buy a house and a car or two, he may find himself paying quite a sum to fund local government services. Why? Because during the housing boom, the public sector unions managed to snag some sweet deals for themselves. There are retired public sector workers in California who receive six figure pensions, for example. And are these unions willing to give up some of their benefits now that we’ve hit hard times? Forget about it. They want the private sector to continue forking over the cash, and they’re willing to throw temper tantrums at their state capitals to make that happen. The upshot? Unless Johnny has a public sector job, he’s hosed.

I think you probably get the picture at this point. There is rampant social injustice in our system, but that is not entirely the fault of “the rich.” No — our problems are primarily government-related. It is the government that imposes regulations that prevent entrepreneurs from creating new jobs. It is the government that picks winners and losers in the business world and hands our taxes to big corporations to fund things we don’t want. It is the government that makes promises to the public sector unions that it ultimately cannot keep without going bankrupt or screwing the private sector. It is the government that grants our colleges the liberty to rip people off. It is the government that has enabled 40% of our kids to be born out of wedlock.

The aforementioned Occupiers are demanding the expansion of an already unsustainable public sector, but their proposals are akin to trying to cure someone’s chlamydia by giving them gonorrhea. We don’t need more government; we need less. Moreover, we need to restore the culture that allowed us to be prosperous to begin with. Kids need to be taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that they have to work – and work hard – to get the things they really want.

The Story of Bureaucracy at NOAA

Recently, it came out that the House Appropriations Committee’s continuing resolution for the rest of FY 2011 included a 30% cut in the operational budget of the National Weather Service. Naturally, as a fiscal conservative with a huge stake in the continued advancement of meteorological science in this nation, I was conflicted. 30% cuts to the NWS budget seem EXTREMELY harsh…a lot of proposed advancements in the field of weather forecasting would have to be tabled to make that cut work…forget the server upgrade that will allow us to run more ensemble forecasts (that’s where you take one set of initial conditions, make small tweaks to them, and run the same model many times to get a sense for the range of possible outcomes), cancel the Pacific Observing Program (we send extra ships and planes out there to get some real data where no land based data can exist), and so forth. NWS shifts are generally understaffed as it is and forecasters have to spend long hours doing the job a PR guy should do (answering the phone and dealing with reporters) rather than actually making a forecast…and this cut would probably exascerbate that problem even more by ending the SCEP program, STEP program, and other ways the NWS can acquire cheap labor from rising students so that the forecaster can focus on his job. This affects all of us in the atmospheric science community very deeply.

But, after doing a great deal of thinking about this matter last night and this morning, I’ve decided that the intrinsic problem with NOAA as an organization is not that it’s not getting enough funding. The problem is redundancy. A common issue with government bureaucracies. There’s actually a rather colorful and lengthy history behind the development of NOAA as it stands today, but I want to focus on the meteorological aspect and not on th ocean side, about which I know much less.

Demand for weather forecasts to the public began around the time of the civil war (notice how often mkilitary conflict drives our desire to have more scientific knowledge?) and with the invention of the telegraph wire, the National Weather Bureau was born. Back then, all we really thought we could do was observe the weather over a large area, draw some crude weather maps, and then warn the public of the kind of weather that was likely to be heading their way in the next day or so. Forecasters relied on a complex series of thumb rules and their own experience and intuition as to what affects on the public the weather might have. Even then, the bureau was beseiged by corruption, power abuses and it hemorrhaged money far more than it should have, but that is, perhaps, beside the point since we do a better job these days keeping the science level-headed…that is unless you start talking about CLIMATE science…but that’s another fight for another day.

As we hit WWI, and the roaring 20s, the idea that we might be able to use the basic state equations that govern atmospheric motions to make longer term forecasts than 1 day tok hold and the public started asking for three-day forecasts. The National Weather Bureau underwent radical restructuring with the advent of national radio communications and widespread telephone and telegraph availability, but it was still a single government agency doig essentially one task.

When we hit WWII and were forced to fight large battles in the air, away at sea, over land with complex terrain, etc, and with the sudden realization that – hey – the radar we use to spot enemy bombers also happens to return a lot of signal when it hits a thunderstorm! – we began to understand that remote sensing was going to be critical and that we needed forecasts for marine conditions, data on what was happening in the upper atmosphere and a more sophisticated way of disseminating information to the public. Now we had to contend with airports and commercial air travel and myriad other industries (especially energy) which were very weather-dependent.

The Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service at the dawning of NOAA and, shortly thereafter, as demand for forecasts on all kinds of weather-related phenomena grew – driven by the needs of the private sector, primarily – the proliferation into many different essentially-independent offices with their own unique mandates began.

To the NWS were added a HOST of other brnaches including (and this is just a partial listing relevant to atmospheric sience)

– The National Climate Data Center (NCDC)
– The 14 regional River Forecast Centers (e.g. the Mid Atlantic River Forecast Center or MARFC)
– The Coastal Meteorology Research Program (COMRP)
– The National Buoy Data Center (NBDC)
– The National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS)
– The Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC)
– Formerly the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), now the Storm Prediction Center (SPC)
– The National Hurricane Center (now often referred to as the Tropical Prediction Center – TPC)
– The National Centers for Environmental Prediction (these are the guys that run the computer models – NCEP)
– The Climate Prediction Center (CPC)
– The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
– The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
– The University Cooperative Atmospheric Research (UCAR) foundation
– The Cooperative Meteoroology Program (COMET)

There probably several others I’m forgetting…here’s the thing…if a few of those sound redundant to you, you’ve no idea how right you are. For example, here is a list of the offices who are responsible for making a national map including medium range forecasts for possible weather threats: the NWS, HPC, CPC, NCEP, SPC and MARFCs. All of them do this. Every one of those offices make medium range (3-7 day) forecasts. Many of those forecasts are different form each other, though they try to coordinate with each other enough to avoid confusing the public.

How about this for a listing – the offices that maintain some kind of historical weather data: NCDC, NCAR, UCAR, NSIDC, NASA GISS (yep…NASA is in here for some unknown reason) and NWS…all maintain some data…some of which overlaps, though each office theoretically has a distinct mandate.

Want information about sea-ruface temperatures? You can get it from NASA (a totally separate agency!), the NDBC, NCEP, TPC, or HPC.

Not enough to convince you of the massive redundancies at NOAA? How about a listing of the various offices that put out storm surge and wave forecasts:

SCRIPPS (completely unrelated to the Atmosphere side, but a research institution under NOAA), each NWS regional office affected by ocean processes, the river forecast centers, TPC and NCEP (WAVEWATCH model), not to mention the various coastal meteorology initiatives.

Want the two-day forecast? The HPC has a medium range discussion, but they also do short-range threat assessments to back up the NWS’s point-and-click gridded products and regional forecast discussions and if there’s a flood or drought problem, the HPC and the river forecast centers get involved as well.

How the heck did it get like this?? Why does NOAA waste so many man hours, so much money and so many resources doing the same task five times over? The answer would appear to be…a lack of field vision (an understandable problem…we had no way of knowing how much we were about to accomplish with weather prediction at the end of WWII). Each office was developed separately witha mandate that made sense at the time. Each office pursued that mandate independently with very little coordination at the highest levels (as typically happens in government-run research and business), and each office expanded to fill needs of specific customers who didn’t always know about products provided by other offices.

Now, we have a goliath-like enemy…a massive, unkillable multi-headed medusa that eats money like candy. If we cut the entire NOAA operating budget by 30% (let alone the NWS budget)…there would still be PLENTY of room to do all the work we want to do if we would just force offices to SPECIALIZE and COORDINATE. The result would be better forecasts (because each office gets better at the one thing they do), deleivered in a coherent way that everyone would easily be able to navigate (more user friendly if all the information is on one huge server/website with easy navigation than if you have to google search for the specific thing you want at any given time) and less overhead.

The GOP may be going about it wrongly – simply cutting the NWS budget 30% isn’t going to cause them to streamline their business. That may be what we WANT them to do, but they have no experience doing it…they’re run like all government programs…filled with excessive bureaucractic redundancies to make things easier on the planners and budgetary committees (if they have to approve the whole top-down budget in one slug, it gets complicated…if they just hear an idea pitched by one office the decision is easier to make). Cutting the NWS bbudget now…will indeed severely damage the quality of the products they produce. But I still respect the GOP for trying to shine a light on how wasteful the NWS (and NOAA) really is. If we want better science…we have GOT to do that science in a cost-effective way…and we have GOT to specialize.