Posts tagged ‘Defense Department’

Being Skeptical of Data, Even When It Supports Your Position - Fire Edition

This is the, uh, whateverth installment in a series on using your common sense to fact check data, even when the data is tantalizingly useful for the point one is trying to make.

For the last decade or so, global warming activists have used major fires as further "proof" that there is a global warming trend.  Often these analyses are flawed, for a variety of reasons that will be familiar to readers, e.g.

  • A single bad fire is just one data point and does not prove a trend, you need a series of data to prove a trend
  • There is no upward trend in US acreage in fires over the last 10 years, but there is in the last 20 years, which gives lots of nice opportunities for cherry-picking on both sides
  • Acres burned is a TERRIBLE measure of global warming, because it is trying to draw global trends from a tiny fraction of the world land mass (western US); and because it is dependent on many non-climate variables such as forest management policies and firefighting policy.
  • The better more direct metric of possible warming harm is drought, such as the Palmer drought severity index, which shows no trend (click to enlarge below)

 

  • An even better metric, of course, is that there IS an actual upward trend in temperatures.  There is not, however, much of an upward trend in bad weather like drought, hurricanes, or tornadoes.  In this context fire is a third order variable (temp--->drought---> fire) which makes it a bad proxy, particularly when the first order variable is telling the tale.

AAAAaaaand then, there is this chart, much loved by skeptics, for long-term US fire history:

I am pretty sure that I have avoided ever using this piece of skeptic catnip (though I could be wrong, I can have moments of weakness).  The reason is that nothing about this chart passes the smell test.  While it is true that the 1930's were super hot and dry, likely hotter in the US than it has been this decade, there is absolutely no reason to believe the entire period of 1926-1952 were so much higher than today.  Was there a different fire management policy (e.g. did they just let all fires burn themselves out)?  Was there a change in how the data was recorded?

Here is my rule of thumb -- when you see a discontinuity like this (e.g. before and after 1955) you better have a good explanation and understanding of the discontinuity.  This is not just to be a good person and be true to good scientific process (though we all should) but also from the practical and selfish desire to avoid having someone come along who DOES know why the discontinuity exists and embarrass you for your naivete.

I have never trusted this chart, because I have not really understood it.  This week, the Antiplanner (who before he focused on transit focused most of his writing on the Forest Service and forest policy) has an explanation.

The story begins in 1908, when Congress passed the Forest Fires Emergency Funds Act, authorizing the Forest Service to use whatever funds were available from any part of its budget to put out wildfires, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds. As far as I know, this is the only time any democratically elected government has given a blank check to any government agency; even in wartime, the Defense Department has to live within a budget set by Congress.

This law was tested just two years later with the Big Burn of 1910, which killed 87 people as it burned 3 million acres in the northern Rocky Mountains. Congress reimbursed the funds the Forest Service spent trying (with little success) to put out the fires, but — more important — a whole generation of Forest Service leaders learned from this fire that all forest fires were bad....

This led to a conflict over the science of fire that is well documented in a 1962 book titled Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service. Owners of southern pine forests believed that they needed to burn the underbrush in their forests every few years or the brush would build up, creating the fuels for uncontrollable wildfires. But the mulish Forest Service insisted that all fires were bad, so it refused to fund fire protection districts in any state that allowed prescribed burning.

The Forest Service’s stubborn attitude may have come about because most national forests were in the West, where fuel build-up was slower and in many forests didn’t lead to serious wildfire problems. But it was also a public relations problem: after convincing Congress that fire was so threatening that it deserved a blank check, the Forest Service didn’t want to dilute the message by setting fires itself.

When a state refused to ban prescribed fire, the Forest Service responded by counting all fires in that state, prescribed or wild, as wildfires. Many southern landowners believed they needed to burn their forests every four or five years, so perhaps 20 percent of forests would be burned each year, compared with less than 1 percent of forests burned through actual wildfires. Thus, counting the prescribed fires greatly inflated the total number of acres burned.

The Forest Service reluctantly and with little publicity began to reverse its anti-prescribed-fire policy in the late 1930s. After the war, the agency publicly agreed to provide fire funding to states that allowed prescribed burning. As southern states joined the cooperative program one by one, the Forest Service stopped counting prescribed burns in those states as wildfires. This explains the steady decline in acres burned from about 1946 to 1956.

There were some big fires in the West in the 1930s that were not prescribed fires. I’m pretty sure that if someone made a chart like the one shown above for just the eleven contiguous western states, it would still show a lot more acres burned in real wildfires in the 1930s than any decade since — though not by as big a margin as when southern prescribed fires are counted. The above chart should not be used to show that fires were worse in the 1930s than today, however, because it is based on a lie derived from the Forest Service’s long refusal to accept the science behind prescribed burning.

There you go, the discontinuity seems to be from a change in the way the measurement is calculated.

By the way, I work closely with the Forest Service every day and mostly this partnership is rewarding.  But I can tell you that the blank check still exists for fire suppression costs and results in exactly the sort of inefficient spending that you would imagine.   Every summer, much Forest Service work comes to a halt as nearly every manager and professional gets temporarily assigned to fire -- something FS employees love because they get out of the grind of their day job and essentially get to go camping.

Trump Likely to Impose New Tariffs Today: Is This Bad Economics or Madman Theory?

Frankly, I do not know how folks like Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux do it.  They are able to keep going, day after day, year after year, refuting the same stupid anti-trade arguments over and over again.  I don't have the patience or endurance.  Long-time readers will remember I used to spend a lot of time on climate.  But the debate never went anywhere.  It was like Groundhog Day.  At some point I just thought "I've said what I have to say, and now I am done"  (though I actually do have a climate update in the works).

Anyway, Trump has put tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum and is poised to do so for European products soon, a tax that will ultimately be paid by every American consumer.  Sigh.  This is just so economically ignorant it is hard to take it seriously, yet here it is.  In the name of 150,000 or so US steelworkers and a bare handful of obviously politically well-connected corporations, we are going to raise prices on essential raw materials that are consumed in one way or another by a huge number of American businesses and hundreds of millions of US consumers.   Two or three years ago when US manufacturers are moving oversees for lower raw material costs, you will know why.

Republicans are really supposed to know better on this sort of thing, which to me is just proof #12,465 that our political parties represent tribal rather than consistent ideological differences.  Republicans have twisted themselves in so many knots trying to support Trump while knowing better on tariffs that some have actually brought back a version of madman theory.

I am not entirely sure of the intellectual and historical origins of madman theory, but I have always ascribed it to Nixon and Kissinger.

President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel "the other side" to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by "push[ing] so many chips into the pot" that Nixon would seem 'crazy' enough to "go much further," according to newly declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The documents include a 1972 Kissinger memorandum of conversation published today for the first time in which Kissinger explains to Defense Department official Gardner Tucker that Nixon's strategy was to make "the other side ... think we might be 'crazy' and might really go much further" — Nixon's Madman Theory notion of intimidating adversaries such as North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to bend them to Washington's will in diplomatic negotiations

Speaking of Kissinger, the new Conservative explanation of Trump trade (and foreign) policy also includes an element of old-time brinksmanship.  I remember reading something in college from Kissinger, which I can't find now so maybe I have it wrong, but I would paraphrase it as, "it is very dangerous to go to the brink over an issue, but one can never make progress without going to the brink."

Some Conservatives are now arguing that Trump's protectionism is "good" protectionism because it is an opening move in a bargaining game where the US can make headway and perhaps get better rules all around.  As such, Trump's seeming irrationality and willingness to ignore basic economics is a feature, not a bug, supporting the madman model of negotiation.

Ugh.  This might perhaps all be reasonable strategy in a zero-sum game such as, say, negotiating shares of the assets in a bankruptcy settlement (something Trump is actually super experienced at).  Trade, though, is not a zero-sum game.  By definition, trades that are executed voluntarily have to help both parties, or else they would not be agreed to.  As such, anything that reduces the amount of trade between people in two countries is guaranteed to be a net loss for BOTH groups of people.  There are no winners.

If Parks Stayed Open, No One Would Notice The Government Shutdown

For several days now I have been highlighting article after article (here and here) where the only service downside of the government shutdown anyone can come up with is the closure of parks.  Here is another example, from the AP entitled "Lawmakers feeling heat from Government Shutdown".  Its all parks:

Some 800,000 federal workers deemed nonessential were staying home again Wednesday in the first partial shutdown since the winter of 1995-96.

Across the nation, America roped off its most hallowed symbols: the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty in New York, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Washington Monument.

Its natural wonders — the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Smoky Mountains and more — put up “Closed” signs and shooed campers away.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he was getting pleas from businesses that rely on tourists. “The restaurants, the hotels, the grocery stores, the gasoline stations, they’re all very devastated with the closing of the parks,” he said.

The far-flung effects reached France, where tourists were barred from the U.S. cemetery overlooking the D-Day beaches at Normandy. Twenty-four military cemeteries abroad have been closed.

Only 22,000 of those 800,000 run parks.  Apparently none of the others do anything we will miss.  Oh, they come up with one new one:

Even fall football is in jeopardy. The Defense Department said it wasn’t clear that service academies would be able to participate in sports, putting Saturday’s Army vs. Boston College and Air Force vs. Navy football games on hold, with a decision to be made Thursday.

Eek!  I joke about this but I fear that today this is going to bite me right in the butt.  Our company operates campgrounds on land we lease from the US Forest Service.  Since we pay all expenses of the operation, take no government money, and employ no government workers, we have never closed in a shutdown and the US Forest Service confirmed at noon yesterday we would not have to close this time.  But apparently someone above the US Forest Service somewhere in the Administration is proposing to reverse this, and illegally close us.  My guess is that they realize parks are the only thing the public misses, and so the Administration trying to see if it can close more of them, even ones that are operated privately and off the government budget.

Update:  This is very similar to what is happening in DC.  By trying to close us, the USFS is actually costing themselves more money (since we pay rent to them based on our revenues) with the only goal being to make the closure worse.  The Administration has ordered the same thing to occur in DC parks, where they are spending far more money "closing" monuments than they do just having them open all the time

Yesterday, the sight of a group of World War II veterans storming the barricaded monument built in their honor in Washington, D.C., became the buzzworthy moment from the first day of our federal shutdown.  The open-air, unmanned outdoor memorial had been barricaded to keep people from "visiting" due to the government shutdown, though there was no real (as in “non-political”) reason to have done so. Barricades certainly wouldn’t prevent vandals from busting in there at night if they wanted to. It was an absurd, petty move.

This morning, Charlie Spiering of the Washington Examiner returned to the memorial to find a gaggle of “essential” government workers there to barricade it once again. He tweeted that the employees fled after cameras started filming them working, but then came back to attach “closed” signs. A couple of them appear to be talking to the media. The barricades are apparently there, but have not been tied together and are therefore easily removed.

Shame On Executives For Flying Private Jets...

...only those of us in Congress get to fly private jets

Congress plans to spend $550 million to buy eight jets, a substantial upgrade to the fleet used by federal officials at a time when lawmakers have criticized the use of corporate jets by companies receiving taxpayer funds.

The purchases will help accommodate growing travel demand by congressional officials. The planes augment a fleet of about two dozen passenger jets maintained by the Air Force for lawmakers, administration officials and military chiefs to fly on government trips in the U.S. and abroad.

The congressional shopping list goes beyond what the Air Force had initially requested as part of its annual appropriations. The Pentagon sought to buy one Gulfstream V and one business-class equivalent of a Boeing 737 to replace aging planes. The Defense Department also asked to buy two additional 737s that were being leased.

Lawmakers in the House last week added funds to buy those planes, and plus funds to buy an additional two 737s and two Gulfstream V planes. The purchases must still be approved by the Senate. The Air Force version of the Gulfstream V each costs $66 million, according to the Department of Defense, and the 737s cost about $70 million.

Even the richest of private companies blush at the prospect of buying Gulfstream V jets, the absolute top of the line in business jet luxury.  Except, of course, for the ridiculously oversized Boeing Business Jet, of which Congress appears to be buying 3 (the BBJ is the business version of the 737).  I am sure there is one, but I can't think of a single Fortune 500 company, and I have worked for and with a lot of them and flown on their jets, that has even one BBJ.

I can understand why certain officials need to fly private planes just for security, but the average Congressman from Wyoming?  Why won't commercial work.  Andy why, if they must have  a private plane, wouldn't a more reasonably sized Falcon 50 or Citation work just as well?

Update: Several people have found it ironic that the White House threw a fit over $300+ million for funding of new warplanes but hasn't blinked over $500+ million to ferry Congress around in luxury.

Update #2: An example of the BBJ.  This is how you fly, right?

Great Report on Earmarks

The Seattle Times has done a ton of work on earmarks, and has a report here.  Nothing here will be much of a surprise for earmark critics.  This was probably my favorite bit:

Last year, Congress promised to shed light on the secretive process. But the lists of earmarks are still buried in obscure documents that are difficult to find and search. Until Congress put them online a couple of weeks ago, the House disclosure letters, linking lawmakers to companies, were thick volumes of paper kept in a cabinet in the offices of the House Appropriations Committee.

When a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly pointed out how difficult it remains to pull all the information together, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the committee that drafts the defense bill, had a quick answer: "Tough shit."

Murtha, for those who don't know, consistently leads the earmarking numbers, and came in #1 among Congressmen in reaping campaign donations from earmark recipients, bringing in over $1.6 million.  They have a database here where you can look up your Congressman (mine, John Shadegg, was one of the few with zero).  My sense is that this database is only from the military appropriation and that there are many more earmarks hidden out there in other bills, but it is a good start.  (hat tip Hit and Run)

The new, but not surprising, information for me was how Congress easily sidesteps the new disclosure rules.

After months of investigating the $459 billion 2008 defense bill, The Times found:

  • The hidden $3.5 billion included 155 earmarks, among them the most costly in the bill. Congress disclosed 2,043 earmarks worth $5 billion.
  • The House broke the new rules at least 110 times by failing to disclose who was getting earmarks, making it difficult for the public to judge whether the money is being spent wisely.
  • In at least 175 cases, senators did not list themselves in Senate records as earmark sponsors, appearing more fiscally responsible. But they told a different story to constituents back home in news releases, claiming credit for the earmarks and any new jobs.

The Times includes several irritating but entertaining stories of rent-seeking.  Take Cyberlux, for example.  What do you do when your company has sunk $50 million into a new product, has a $18 million a year burn rate, and only has $300,000 is revenues for the first six months of the year?  Why, you call your Congressman and generate revenues via earmarks, with a quick thank you in the form of company-sponsored fundraising for said representative.

And this certainly is a feel-good story for those rooting for the government to re-engineer the American auto industry:

Latrobe Specialty Steel of Latrobe, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, makes specialty steel for aircraft parts.
In 2006, its parent company, Timken, spent $2.9 million lobbying Congress on various issues and persuaded lawmakers to ban the Defense Department from buying any products using foreign-made specialty steel. As the sole U.S. producer of certain kinds of specialty steel, Latrobe saw its orders climb. Timken then sold Latrobe to a group of investors in a $250 million deal.

But the buy-American restrictions for specialty steel caused serious problems for the Air Force, creating a 17-month lag in getting spare parts for aircraft used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2007, Latrobe said it needed to expand but complained of high electric bills and publicly threatened to build a new plant in Virginia or West Virginia instead. Pennsylvania offered grants and tax credits to the company worth $1.2 million.

In Congress, lawmakers were quietly lining up a much sweeter package.

In the defense bill passed in December, someone had inserted language that ultimately directed $18.4 million for "domestic expansion of essential vacuum induction melting furnace capacity and vacuum arc remelting furnace capacity."

"Latrobe Specialty Steel is the only domestic producer of that steel," Army Lt. Gen. William Mortensen said at a hearing.

A month after the bill passed, Latrobe began a $62 million expansion in its home state.

No one in Congress has admitted sponsoring the Latrobe earmark.

One congressman's fingerprints, however, weren't so easy to conceal. Latrobe sits in the congressional district of Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that drafts the defense bill and wields the most power over defense earmarks.

Latrobe's officials have given $5,000 to Murtha's re-election fund in the past two years.

Also, Murtha had talked about giving taxpayer dollars to Latrobe. "We're trying to get together to see how we can work out an increased capacity for that particular company," Murtha said at a subcommittee hearing in April 2007. "I've talked to that producer. And what I'd like to see is them put some money in, us put some money in, and reduce the time it takes to get those spare parts out."...

The company would not comment on any discussions it had with Murtha. A spokeswoman defended getting the grant, saying it had been competitively bid. Even so, she acknowledged that Latrobe is the sole U.S. producer of certain specialty steels, a requirement for getting the money.

What a Jerk

Via ABC News, comes this story of Congressman Randall Cunningham:

Prosecutors call it a corruption case with no parallel in the long
history of the U.S. Congress. And it keeps getting worse. Convicted
Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham actually priced the illegal services he
provided.

Prices came in the form of a "bribe menu" that detailed how much it
would cost contractors to essentially order multimillion-dollar
government contracts, according to documents submitted by federal
prosecutors for Cunningham's sentencing hearing this Friday....

The card shows an escalating scale for bribes, starting at $140,000
and a luxury yacht for a $16 million Defense Department contract. Each
additional $1 million in contract value required a $50,000 bribe.

The rate dropped to $25,000 per additional million once the contract went above $20 million.

Better Late Than Never

Via Instapundit comes the separation of powers is slowly starting to work, with the Senate starting to reign in the Administration:

In a break with the White House, the Republican-controlled Senate
overwhelmingly approved a measure Wednesday that would set standards for the
military's treatment of detainees, a response to the Abu Ghraib scandal and
other allegations that U.S. soldiers have abused prisoners.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a victim of torture while a prisoner during the
Vietnam War, won approval of the measure that would make interrogation
techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual the standard for handling
detainees in Defense Department custody and prohibit "cruel, inhuman or
degrading" treatment of U.S.-held prisoners.

Its good to see Congress getting off its butt and seeing it stop relying on the Supreme Court to deal with these issues.  I thought this was overdue a while back when I posted this.

Of course GWB, who is the only president in history to go 5 years without vetoing anything, is threatening a veto of this sensible regulation:

The White House has threatened to veto the $440 billion military spending
bill to which the measure was attached, and Vice President Dick Cheney has
lobbied to defeat the detainee measure. White House spokesman Scott McClellan
objected that the measure would "limit the president's ability as
commander-in-chief to effectively carry out the war on terrorism."

Uh, how?  Glenn Reynolds responds:

This resistance seems to me to be a mistake. First -- as Lamar
Alexander noted on the Senate floor, in a passage I heard on NPR
earlier this morning -- it is very much the Congress's responsibility
to make decisions like this; the President might do so in the first
instance, but we've been at war for more than four years and Congress
is actually doing its job late, not jumping in to interfere. If the
White House thinks that the Senate's approach is substantively wrong,
it should say so, but presenting it as simply an interference with the
President's Commander-in-Chief powers is wrong. Congress is entitled,
and in fact obligated, to set standards of this sort. It's probably
also better politically for the White House, since once the legislation
is in place complaints about what happened before look a bit ex post facto.

Perhaps current practices are producing a treasure trove of
intelligence that this bill would stop, but I doubt that -- and if I'm
wrong, the Administration should make that case to Congress, not stand
on executive prerogatives. And this bill seems to be just what I was calling for
way back when -- a sensible look at the subject by responsible people,
freed of the screeching partisanship that has marked much of the
discussion in the punditsphere. That should be rewarded, not blown off.

A Bush veto of this measure is likely to touch off the perfect political storm within his own party.  This would make the trifecta of alienation from the more sober parts of the Republican Party, following on his profligate spending tendencies as revealed post-Katrina and his cronyism as reveled first at FEMA and now with his recent Supreme Court nomination.