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The Lighthouse is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
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Volume 9, Issue 31: July 30, 2007

  1. What’s Behind the Increase in Atlantic Hurricanes?
  2. Courts Gone Wild
  3. The Ethanol Boondoggle
  4. Higgs on Bullets over Baghdad

1) What’s Behind the Increase in Atlantic Hurricanes?

The increase in hurricanes originating in the Atlantic observed over the past dozen years is likely the result, not of global warming, but rather of a speed-up of water circulating in the Atlantic—the thermohaline circulation (THC)—argues noted hurricane researcher and Independent Institute Research Fellow William M. Gray in an op-ed appearing in the July 26 Wall Street Journal.

“The strength of the Atlantic’s THC shows distinct variations over time, due to naturally occurring salinity variations,” writes Gray. “When the THC is strong, the upper-ocean water becomes warmer than normal; atmospheric circulation changes occur; and more hurricanes form. The opposite occurs when the THC is weaker than average. Since 1995, the Atlantic’s THC has been significantly stronger than average. It was also stronger than average during the 1940s to early 1960s—another period with a spike in major hurricane activity. It was distinctly weaker than average in the two quarter-century periods of 1970-1994 and 1900-1925, when there was less hurricane activity.”

For years, Gray and several of his colleagues at Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project have argued for a THC-hurricane connection in their annual hurricane forecasts and at conferences. Climate modelers who claim that global warming is the culprit, however, have largely ignored it—perhaps because “they rely more on theory than on observations,” Gray speculates.

“Hurricanes and Hot Air,” by William M. Gray (The Wall Street Journal, 7/26/07) Spanish Translation

William M. Gray spoke at the Independent Institute event, “States of Fear: Politics or Science?” featuring Michael Crichton and a distinguished panel of scientists.

Purchase the DVD of this event.

More on science and public policy

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2) Courts Gone Wild

The greatest dangers to justice in the United States come not from headline cases of judges suing dry cleaners for $26 million for wrecking a pair of trousers or wacky opportunists suing celebrities for sending them encrypted marriage proposals (stop that, David Letterman!). Instead, they emanate from the very heart of many legal jurisdictions, according to Independent Institute Research Director Alexander Tabarrok.

In his research with Eric Helland, Tabarrok found, for example, that “awards against out-of-state defendants were 42% higher in states that use partisan elections to select their judges than in states that appoint judges; a $363,000 per-case increase on average,” he writes in a piece published at Forbes.com. Lawyers and their consultants, of course, are the largest donors to judges’ election campaigns.

“Elected judges are not the only problem,” Tabarrok continues. “Helland and I also found that ‘damage’ awards are much larger in jurisdictions with high poverty rates. In counties with poverty rates below 5%, for example, we found that tort awards averaged $400,000. But as poverty rates increase, so do the awards, with the average tort award increasing to a whopping $2.6 million in counties with poverty rates greater than 35%.”

“Courts Gone Wild,” by Alexander Tabarrok (Forbes.com, 7/24/07)

Purchase Judge and Jury: American Tort Law on Trial, by Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok.

More by Alexander Tabarrok

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3) The Ethanol Boondoggle

“Hailed as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels and a means of reducing U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, the U.S. ethanol program has mutated into a huge tax-financed boondoggle whose costs far outweigh its benefits,” write agricultural economists and Independent Institute Research Fellows Ernest C. Pasour Jr. and Randal R. Rucker in a recent op-ed.

Even with President Bush’s proposed five-fold increase over five years, the ethanol program would do little to reduce the use of petroleum products in the United States. This is not only because ethanol has lower energy content than gasoline (vehicles using E85 ethanol-gas mix get about 30% lower gas mileage, according to the EPA), but also because of “the huge amount of petroleum used in growing, harvesting, and transporting the corn needed to produce the mandated amount of ethanol,” according to Pasour and Rucker.

The U.S. ethanol program also has several spillover costs, they argue. Government subsidies for corn for ethanol (totalling about $1 per gallon) remove land from other uses, such as growing soybeans, oats, sorghum, wheat, and barley, and ethanol processing plants emit pollutants. In addition to the subsidies, a 54-cent per gallon tariff helps keep ethanol from Brazil from competing with the U.S. ethanol industry.

“Big Ethanol Push in U.S. Is Pork Barrel Boondoggle,” by Ernest C. Pasour Jr. and Randal R. Rucker (Tampa Tribune, 7/14/07) Spanish Translation

Purchase Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture, by Ernest C. Pasour Jr. and Randal R. Rucker.

More on agriculture

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4) Higgs on Bullets over Baghdad

Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert Higgs critiques libertarian law professor Randy Barnett’s defense of the Iraq War, published July 17 on the op-ed pages of the Wall-Street Journal:

“It is unfortunate that Barnett fails to recognize warfare for what it has long been: the master key with which the state gains entry into every formerly protected area of American life, overriding long-established rights and suppressing long-established liberties,” writes Higgs in a letter to the editor of the Journal, an excerpt of which was published today.

In a piece posted last week, Higgs laments the absurdity of U.S. forces expending more than a quarter of a million bullets—most manufactured by Missouri-based Alliant Techsystems—for every insurgent killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If we assume that only 3 billion of the 9.2 billion small-caliber rounds consumed by U.S. forces during the past six fiscal years were fired in combat in Iraq,” wrote Higgs, “then, given an Iraqi population of approximately 27 million in recent years, the rate of U.S. small-arms fire during the present war works out to more than 100 shots for every man, woman, and child in the country, or more than ten times what the world's population received per capita from U.S. forces during World War II.”

“Letter to the Editor,” by Robert Higgs (The Wall Street Journal, 7/30/07) Spanish Translation

“If You Miss the First Time, Try Firing Another 300,000 Rounds,” by Robert Higgs (7/24/07) Spanish Translation

Purchase Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government, by Robert Higgs.

More by Robert Higgs

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