William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 394 of 626

Predict The Next Strangest Government Regulation

Perhaps the most fantastical regulation to launch recently from the collective hive-mind of the federal bureaucracy is the one which administrates the very breath of life. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency—stop right there! Our EPA

Just pause and contemplate the name of this ever-growing government group. The Agency (connotations of furtive, fedora-wearing men) to Protect the Environment? And just what is the “environment”? Why, everything. There is nothing that isn’t the environment. The best technical definition is “Earth and its solar neighborhood”, which though seemingly broad fails to mention cosmic rays. Thus, the entire universe is the environment.

The EPA can reason in just this way and argue that literally everything under the sun is in its purview. Laugh not, nor scoff you. The EPA pulled this stunt when it decided to classify your very breath as a pollutant. Why? Because drawing a breath necessitates puffing one back out. Problem is, the output has more carbon dioxide than the input. And that gas is persona non grata in the hallways of Washington: it causes unstoppable catastrophic global warming!


It is your turn to ponder and predict what new, frivolous, freedom-restricting, freakish, flighty fiat will befall us. The rules are detailed below. The winner will receive a presentation-ready certificate (on recycled paper using biodegradable ink) announcing his sagacity.

Now, what the EPA has not yet acknowledged is that other biologically created gases are more insidious than CO2. Methane, for one, the emissions of which were well proved in the campfire scene in that classic Mel Brooks documentary Blazing Saddles.

Thus, my entry for the next strangest government regulation is that the EPA will limit per-capita bean and cruciferous-vegetable consumption, or that it will mandate the manufactures of these food stuffs incorporate Beano into their recipes.

I base this prediction not just on trends in global warming-based rules, but on the many new regulations which tell citizens what they may not put into their bodies. New York bans trans-fat, there are calls to limit salt everywhere, in California (first as ever) there is a proposed law to stop smoking in tobacco shops, schools in Chicago forbid homemade lunches, and on and on and on.

And don’t forget the granddaddy of them all: the prohibition of alcohol, written into the very fabric of our Constitution! Our rule is always this: if it happened before, it will happen again. Incidentally, am I the only one to notice that the introduction of prohibition in this and every other country coincided, within a year or two, of universal suffrage? Most food- and booze-based rules are nothing more than legalistic, mandatory-sweater-wearing mothering.

The internet in its salad days was, as Tom Cruise famously said of Scientology, wild and woolly. People said and did what they wanted. Innovation was rampant. Money was made. No more! The government has finally caught its breath and figured out how to parse an string of HTML. It wants in.

There are calls for “net neutrality”—as is common with regulations, this one means the opposite of what it says. Companies who paid for the cables, machines, and men which bring the internet to your home will be told that they may not charge for the amount people use these cables, machines, and men. The government has been persuaded that charge-for-use is “unfair.”

Were you aware that some websites are not accessible for the deaf and blind? The government is, and it is considering expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act to mandate websites become “accessible” (a term to be defined by lawyers).

It isn’t just the government, the National Federation of the Blind has lodged an official complaint with the Justice Department which charges that “Google Apps for Education amounts to discrimination.” It will not be long before armed agents come to the garages of programmers and say, “Build this in or cease operating.”

Our populace is by now well trained to see any deprivation, no matter how slight or fleeting, as a gross and intolerable injustice, as a wrong to be righted by legislative muscle. On any corner you can hear cries of Racism!, Sexism!, Rights! Therefore, we shall see an ever-increasing series of bizarre and lunatic laws and regulations. The only question is: what comes next?


The regulation you propose must be new, not mentioned by any politician or agency heretofore. It must be verifiable, and you must provide the details that allow its verification. All regulations must be on the books—either in some some federal agency or proposed (but not necessarily passed) in the Senate or House—by 15 April 2012 (tax day).

Somebody also has to remind me to re-publicize this contest from time to time. I am the sole judge and jury.

This contest is null and void if it breaks any rules and regulations set up by our ever beneficent government. The prize has no cash value.

Taxing The Rich Always Fails Eventually

The solution Mr Obama proposed yesterday for increasing the federal budget was to raise taxes. He did not suggest taking a one-time chunk of money from those who earned it to sprinkle it among congresspersons, but instead demanded that a proportional permanent increase in taxes be levied (and that those monies be given to Congress to spend). The difference between these two modes of taxation is everything.

Here is the way the federal budget process has worked in practice—I do not say in theory, but in actuality. A projection is made of revenues (taxes). The government plans to spend all those monies and usually a little more. When the projections are accurate, the deficit grows only slowly, and in some years even decreases. These years are and have been infrequent; therefore it is rational to believe that these years will continue to be infrequent. It is irrational to believe that deficits will not continue to grow on average.

Much more often the projection is wrong. It is in error. It is overconfident. It is too sure. It says that more money will come in than actually does. This happens more frequently than do accurate projections.

The shortfall is recognized and then one or two things occurs, though both may also occur. The first is that the government “borrows” money, which increases the deficit and imperils future projections, making them less certain. The second is that taxes are raised. The argument is always, “Look, the hole is there. It can only be filled with money. If we don’t fill it now, danger looms.” This reasoning is often convincing because of the ever-nearness of elections.

Once the taxes are raised, new and higher projections are made based on the assumption that more money will flow to the government (and away from people). The budget is made on these projections; the government plans to spend all these new monies and usually a little more. When the projections are accurate…but never mind.

We are in an unbreakable loop. It ever ratchets up taxes and spending, which positively increases the power of the government. My proof is in this picture:

Budget Per Capita

This is the federal per-capita outlay in constant dollars. This is how much is spent and says nothing about how much is taken in. The last year of data is 2008, the remaining years are projections from that year, and are thus way too low: in other words, the actual outlays are higher than projected. Sound familiar? (I’ll be updating this chart when I get the new data.)

The peaks due to WWI and WWII are obvious, but even more sickeningly blatant is the inexorable, probably unstoppable, upward trend. The rare times of decrease are associated with rapid economic innovation which outstrips the government’s ability to regulate; however, it always catches up. Do not forget that this chart adjusts for both an increase in population and inflation. Look carefully at the vertical-axis: it is logarithmic. The spending is increasing exponentially!

Mr Obama is suggesting that this rate of increase should not only continue, but itself increase. That is, the rate of government spending per capita should accelerate. Some of this acceleration will be to expanding existing government programs, some will be to create and fund new programs (such as the many new programs under Obamacare). The ideology that drives Mr Obama is that government is good and should be larger.

That ideology is what drove most congresses and presidents, regardless of their rhetoric. The chart above is what actually happened. There is no theory to it, no ideology. A century ago the government was spending about $150 per person. It will soon spend about $15 thousand dollars. This is an increase of 100 times.

The government, in other words, is 100 times stronger than it was a century ago. And since the government is, after all, just people, those people have 100 times the power. This power is increasing. Mr Obama would have it increase even faster.

The rich therefore will grow richer but fewer in number, and the poor poorer but will increase their number. Curiously, this necessary fact will be used as an argument that the rich should pay more, which will only serve to accelerate the trend.

I am not economist enough to tell you when the breaking point will be reached, but I can say that it must come if these trends continue.

Update A numerical example. Suppose you and the Mrs. and Becky and Billy comprise a household of 4. The government will spend $60 thousand dollars on your family. In order to balance the budget, your family would have to contribute $60K in taxes. But that means you and the Mrs. must pull down about $150 – $200 thousand, depending on the nature of your deductions.

But the median household income is about $50K. Thus, the government is spending about 3 to 4 times too much per household on average.

In his speech, Mr Obama said that “millionaires and billionaires should pay a little more.” Presumably, the president was using the Chicago definition of “billionaire”, which roughly means “Those individuals (not households) earning over $70 thousand.” Taking all—not some, all—the money from “millionaires and billionaires” (real ones, not rhetorical ones) would not be enough to fund the government. The rich can pay more than their fair share and it we would still fall short.

The Impossibility Of Minimizing Your Environmental “Impact”

I like the word impact, especially in sentences of the type, “The missile impacted on the insurgents’ hideout, killing all inside.” But it leaves me cold and vaguely homicidal to hear it used as environmentalists do when what they mean is influence, as when they ask us to “Minimize our environmental impact.”

The usage battle, sadly, is lost. I acknowledge the defeat, but I can’t bring myself to hold hands with my former enemy. However, since the word is in widespread use, I cannot avoid it; though I can strangle it with quotation marks.

To the real point: environmental activists are asking the impossible. The only way to minimize your environmental “impact” is not to be born. Any other option, including your mother exercising her right to “choose” after you have been conceived, will see you have some “impact.”

Every breath you take is an “impact” on the environment, even those breaths you take in the womb. Even stronger, in order to live you must have food, which means you must kill. To live is to kill: your life necessarily causes the death of many. Thus, the longer you live, the more “impact” you will have.

Given that you are not dead now, the only possible way to minimize your future “impact” is to fall upon your sword forthwith, taking care to tumble naked into a hand-dug shallow grave far from any water shed. There is no other choice—except that a sword may be swapped with a sturdy sharp stick.

These are simple, inescapable facts of logic, given that we accept that great utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s definition that minimize means “to reduce to the smallest part or proportion possible.” That is also the mathematical definition. The smallest part or proportion possible here is none.

Environmentalists are thus gibbering when asking people to minimize their “impact.” It is obvious they cannot believe the words they have been using, because we have not seen many demonstrations of altruistic earnestness. Instead of, say, Sierra Club officers walking that last mile into the woods to show the world how its done, these wide-eyed folks jet to a distant city to beg for money, funds which are needed so that meetings can be held to decide where to next fly to. No officered activist has ever been seen sharpening his stick.

What about calls to reduce your “impact”? Reducing is not minimizing. It is clearly possible to reduce without having to sacrifice yourself to Mother Earth. For example, you can take one less breath a day, or one fewer spoonful of wheat, drive one less mile, drink one fewer cup of wine. Anybody can reduce!

This isn’t satisfactory, because it is difficult to believe any activist would be satisfied if all pledged, and all fulfilled that pledge, of eating one less spoonful a day. It is easy to see that calls for “reductions” are akin to pleas to “Tax the rich!” Vapid political slogans which are purposely vague. And any moves towards definite, practical definitions are resisted.

The reason for this is obvious. If an environmentalist (or socialist or whomever) says, “By reduce, I mean X” then the danger is that X, whatever it is, will obtain. That is, the details in X might come to pass. And if they do—if X is fully implemented—the activist will be forced to acknowledge his success. But the moment he does, he is out of a job, he will have lost his calling, he will have agitated himself onto welfare.

So it is to his infinite benefit to never say what he means, to use only loose and watery phrases. This way he can ever be safely unsatisfied. And fully employed.

Overstretching Climate Change Attribution

Says Camille Parmesan and others, “The biological world is responding rapidly to a changing climate, but attempts to attribute individual impacts to rising greenhouse gases are ill-advised” (from the first issue of Nature: Climate Change).

With everything after the “but” I heartily agree. However, à la Bill Clinton, the truth of the entire sentence depends on what the meaning of “is” is. More of that in a moment. First, let us celebrate that a few members of the Consensus had the guts to say “Slow down!” in print.

Climate change is made of toads and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. I mean, if there isn’t already, then there soon will be peer-reviewed papers that threaten plagues of toads, surfeits of poisonous snails, and unexpected shortenings of puppy-dog’s tails, all caused by that great maleficence of our time, climate change. “It is the organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great [world].” It is the Moriarty of sciences.

All know this. Yet Parmesan was brave and said, “It is rarely possible to attribute specific responses of individual wild species to human-induced climate change.” And then came the Holmesian logic:

This is partly because human forcing of the climate is only detectable on large spatial scales, yet organisms experience local climate. Moreover, in any given region, species’ responses to climate change are idiosyncratic, owing to basic differences in their biology. A further complication is that responses to climate are inextricably intertwined with reactions to other human modifications of the environment. Even where climate is a clear driver of change, little insight is gained by asking what proportion of the overall trend is due to greenhouse gases versus solar activity.

The IPCC, however, cognizant of its role of spiritual leader and grants justifier, insists biologists begin “assessing the extent to which observed biological changes are being driven by greenhouse-gas-induced climate change versus natural climate variability.” The debate is over, warming is caused by humans, now show us how all biological changes are due to human activity! (Only bad changes, please; those changes that are good are in spite of climate change, not because of it.)

But Parmesan counters, “the probability of successfully attributing climatic trends to greenhouse gases declines sharply at spatial scales smaller than 106 km2 and at temporal scales shorter than 50 years”, so “it is inappropriate to attribute single events to anthropogenic climate change.”

In other words (my words), the risk of falsely asserting a biological change is due to human activity is large. Charge people to attribute untoward shifts in biological system to humans guarantees they will discover such attributions, whether they are true or not. Even the diciest “attribution” will find its way to print, because the subject will be deemed too important to ignore and because of the eternal reason, “Just in case.”

What makes it worse is that each time an attribution reaches the press, it will taken as more evidence that climate change is here and out to get us. An organism that changes its behavior (in a statistical sense) is only indirect evidence that climate changed. This is because biological changes, rapid or slow, can be caused by things other than climate.

For example, this statement from Parmesan is false, “As biological impacts provide evidence of climate change independently of temperature measurements, they have successfully bolstered ‘detection’, strengthening the scientific consensus that Earth is warming.”

To determine climate change, all we need is a thermometer and a rain gauge (or their equivalents, etc.). We do not need to examine the spoor of Moose or the chemical composition of prairie grass. The evidence of biological changes is not independent of the evidence we have from thermometers (and satellites, etc.). Further, it is silly to use Moose poop or tree rings when you could have used a thermometer.1

This is widely misunderstood. People hear that arctic thermometers register an increase and then hear that ice near that thermometer melted. There is only one piece of evidence here, not two. Ice melting is an effect of the temperature increase. It is not independent evidence of the increase. If we also measure an increase in abundance of some warmth-loving organism by the thermometer, we have not added independent evidence of temperature increase. Ice melting and organisms thriving are what happens when it gets hot out. We do not have three pieces of evidence, we still have just one.2

Thus, all the reports of fuzzy animals suffering, or of bad animals, bugs, and bacteria thriving, are not independent evidence of climate change. And the chance that changes in these beasties can be put down as caused by human activity is small. But there is little hope that Parmesan’s warning will be heeded. The temptations to “discover” attributions are too large and lucrative.

Update To clarify: if we can only say with low probability a given meteorological event is caused (indirectly) by man through climate change, the uncertainty in asserting that changes to an organism that is influenced by the meteorological event is vastly greater. This uncertainty is like multiplying probabilities: the result must be less than either probability.


1If no thermometer exists, then proxies can be used. However, click the “Stats/Climate” link at the top of the page for where this can and has gone wrong.

2It is an entirely different question what caused the temperature increase. An increase is evidence for man-made global warming; but it is also evidence for other theories of climate change (most of which you have not heard of, the press being as busy as it is). Which is the best theory remains unknown.

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