Take Your Pick
front-page story in today's (July 16) New York Times reports that "In California,
where record electricity prices and local blackouts captured national attention
for months, wholesale power prices have fallen to the lowest levels in more than
a year. Analysts credit new power supplies, a state-led conservation effort and
federal price controls for averting what many had feared would be a catastrophic
summer of scarcity."
Wow. How about that. Federal price controls have averted "what many had
feared would be a catastrophic summer of scarcity." Given how this defies
the standard rules of economics, it sure seems worthy of front-page play -- if
But that's a big "if." Especially if you remember a July 4, 2001,
article that ran in the New York Times national section under the headline,
"U.S. Price Controls Are Said To Worsen Power Shortage." That article
reported: "state and utility officials said the federal price restraints,
put in place on June 19 after months of vigorous debate, seemed to have had the
perverse effect of reducing supplies when they were most needed."
The two articles contradict each other. Today's says the price controls averted
scarcity; the July 4 one said the price controls reduced supplies. If the Times
news department is going to do such a full reversal on the matter of price
controls, it would be nice if it offered readers an explanation. If the reversal
is not merely a matter of the beliefs of the Times news department but in fact
reflects some independent reality in the world outside the Times newsroom, it
would be nice to have an explanation of that, too. How can the same policy that
on July 4 was reducing supplies have the effect on July 16 of averting scarcity?
Unclean on Energy
front page of today's (15 July 2001) New York Times carries an article under the
headline "U.S. Set to Oppose International Plan for Cleaner Energy."
The article contains quotes from three persons: an unnamed Bush administration
official, a Clinton administration official named Dan Reicher, and a woman
identified only as "Daphne Wysham, a fellow with the Institute for Policy
Studies in Washington."
Never mind the ridiculous headline: The Bush administration isn't opposed to
cleaner energy, it is just opposed to the government ramming it down the throats
of consumers regardless of the cost. If you want to consume cleaner energy, the
Bush administration isn't going to stop you.
And never mind the odd definition of "clean" and
"nonpolluting" energy -- "wind, water and the sun."
Generating energy from these sources can require building dams and covering
virgin hillsides with windmills and solar panels -- not exactly
"clean" by the definition of many environmentalists.
The really fascinating question is how a fellow at the Institute for Policy
Studies came to be the only expert quoted in this Times article. There's no
quote from the energy industry, no quote from a conservative or free-market
think tank that might support the Bush administration's position. A reader not
steeped in the details of the issue might think the Institute for Policy Studies
was some centrist research institute with no particular ideological tilt.
In fact, a May 15 article in the Washington Post identified the Institute for
Policy Studies as "left-leaning." The Institute for Policy Studies Web
site is littered with slogans like "Six Months Since the Coup, and Bush is
Still Illegitimate" and references to "the illegality of NATO's attack
on Yugoslavia." Ms. Wysham turns out to be the former editor in chief of
Greenpeace magazine, the publication of the radical environmental group.
The closest the Times comes to a reason for including the Institute for Policy
Studies's perspective in this article is a reference to a study the group did
that found, the Times said, that "the export promotion agencies of rich
nations, like the Export-Import Bank of the United States, are the world's
largest public backers of fossil fuels, the main causes of global warming."
Never mind that the notion that fossil fuels are "the main causes of global
warming" is still hotly debated in scientific and policy circles and is
hardly the sort of thing that one would want to state as
fact without attribution in a news article. This "study" that the
Times makes so much of in today's front-page article appears to be one that was
issued April 28, 1999. It's available in PDF format at
http://www.foe.org/international/climatesummary.pdf. In other words, it's more
than two years old. Funny how a study like that becomes front-page news all of a
sudden once a Republican administration with ties to the oil
industry gets into office.
Smartertimes.com isn't saying that the New York Times shouldn't report on the
Institute for Policy Studies and what its staff has to say. But why not label
the group as "left-leaning" the way the Times constantly labels
conservative groups as "conservative"? And there's no good reason --
in a story this complex, where industry and consumers have interests -- that the
only expert quoted should be a Greenpeace type. Why not give Times readers the
benefit of some other perspectives in addition to those of the hard-left
national section of today's (13 Feb 2001) New York Times carries an article
under the headline "Panel Calls for Higher Mileage Standards." The
article reports that a House of Representatives subcommittee has approved a bill
"to force automobile companies to improve the mileage of sport-utility
vehicles" and minivans.
The article includes one quote from a congressman who favors the bill, another
quote from a congressman who says it doesn't go far enough, and one quote from a
representative of the Sierra Club. No representative of the automobile industry
is named or quoted, nor is any economist or auto-safety expert who could speak
to the likely effect of the new fuel economy standards on safety. The closest
the article comes is a reference, in a single paragraph, to unnamed
The Brookings Institution's Robert Crandall and Harvard's John Graham have
estimated that the current fuel economy standards on cars could be responsible
for a 14 to 27 percent increase in highway fatalities. The smaller cars that are
manufactured to meet the standard tend to be less safe in collisions. A recent
study in the American Journal of Public Health on "Causal Influence of Car
Mass and Size on Driver Fatality Risk," supports the idea that heavier cars
are safer, and that the net safety benefits for drivers of heavier cars
outweighs the risks to those who are hit by them. The Competitive Enterprise
Institute has projected out the Crandall-Graham work to show that the current
fuel economy standards can be blamed for thousands of auto deaths each year.
Of course, there are safety risks associated with pollution, too, and if safety
were the only issue, we'd all be walking or driving around in tanks. But in a
story with so many sides to it, it's just weird that the Sierra Club is the only
interest group with a voice in the Times article.
Weather or Not
The front-page weather forecast in the right ear of yesterday's New York
Times predicted that the high temperature for the day would be 76. The
front-page weather information in today's New York Times says that the high for
the day was 72. In other words, the New York Times was off by a full four
degrees in predicting the next day's temperature in its own hometown.
Not much of a surprise there: anyone who lives in the Northeast is used to the
fact that weather predictions are not entirely reliable. Yet check out the lead
story in the Science Times section of today's paper.
"Supercomputers," the article informs readers, have assured that
"weeklong weather forecasts are generally reliable." The article goes
on to discuss models that predict, on a global basis, "roughly an average
rise of 3 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit if greenhouse gases double from the
concentrations measured before coal and oil burning and forest cutting
significantly altered the atmosphere." The article is about the difficulty
of modeling global climate change, but it seems like it may even be understating
the difficulty. If the Times, supercomputers and all, is off by four degrees on
the next day's temperature in its home town, what are readers supposed to make
of a 3 to 8 degree prediction over a period of decades for the entire planet?
This is not intended as an argument for doing nothing to
restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, and, in some cases, it's easier to make a
prediction for the long term than for the short term. But even with the
cautionary "generally," the Times's own weather forecasting experience
is a sign that the Science Times is overstating the reliability of weeklong
A Smartertimes slip this week. He's confused
weather prediction, which is literally impossible more than a few days in the
future, with climate prediction, which is probably too difficult for today's
forecasters, but not in principle impossible. Still, we get the
An editorial in 23 June 2001 New York Times discusses a series
of votes in the House of Representatives about environmental issues. The
editorial declares that "In a series of votes on Thursday, an impressive
bipartisan majority blocked administration plans for oil and gas exploration in
the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in national monument lands, upheld important mining law reforms that Mr. Bush had opposed and
restored millions of dollars for land protection and energy conservation
programs that he had tried to cut."
"Impressive bipartisan majority?" Well, the Times editorialists must
not be paying much attention to the reporting of their own newspaper's
Washington bureau, which reports on the front page of today's Times, "The
votes on Thursday showed that there was no solid environmental coalition."
The editorial declares that the House votes "send two unmistakable
messages. The House is clearly eager to restore balance to Mr. Bush's energy
strategy, which is weighted toward exploration for fossil fuels. It also wants
Mr. Bush to know that his administration's dismissive approach to the nation's
natural resources reflects a grievous misreading of the public temper."
Not so, according to the front-page news article in today's New York Times. The
news article quotes Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who voted against drilling for oil off
Florida, as saying, "This was not a bellwether vote. I wouldn't read all
that much into it." The news article also reports that Jeff Deist, a
spokesman for Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, said Mr. Paul voted
against the offshore drilling bill as a protest of federal involvement in what
he sees as local decisions." The messages these congressmen are sending,
according to the Times news article, are different from the
"unmistakable" message that the Times editorialists are hearing.
Thomas Friedman's column in today's (1 June 2001) New York
Times bashes President Bush for his "decision to pull the U.S. out of the
1997 Kyoto Protocol, which called for industrialized nations to steadily reduce
their carbon dioxide emissions." Mr. Friedman reports that Mr. Bush
"bowed to the oil companies and pulled the U.S. out of Kyoto." The
column refers to "what Mr. Bush did in trashing Kyoto."
The Kyoto Protocol was trashed as far as the U.S. was concerned long before Mr.
Bush got to the White House. On July 25, 1997, the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 in
favor of the Byrd-Hagel resolution instructing U.S. negotiators that any
greenhouse gas reduction agreement must apply to developing countries as well as
to industrialized nations such as America. The actual Kyoto agreement violated
these instructions. On January 30, 1998, the executive committee of the AFL-CIO
passed a resolution calling on President Clinton "to refrain from signing
the proposed Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate
Change." On July 18, 2000, the Senate passed, 97-2, an Interior
Appropriations bill that included a ban on the use of any of the money to
implement the Kyoto Protocol. The Clinton-Gore administration never even
submitted the Kyoto Protocol for ratification by the Senate, even while it went
through the motions of continuing the Kyoto "process" and trying to
modify the treaty.
What's a Subsidy?
The lead, front-page news article in today's 17 May 2001 New York Times, about Mr. Bush's energy policy, reports "There are no credits or
other tax breaks for oil or gas producers, or electric utilities -- a reflection of the sensitivity of the White House to criticism that Mr.
Cheney and other top officials spent their private-sector years in the energy industry. But the tone of deregulation, reassessment of the merits
of the Clean Air Act and the emphasis on opening of federal land to more energy production -- everything from wind power to oil and gas drilling --
provides those industries with effective subsidies totaling in the billions of dollars." It's not quite clear how deregulation amounts to a
"subsidy." The complaint against subsidies is that they distort the efficiencies of free markets. So do regulations. In that sense,
deregulation is more like removing a subsidy than providing one. A better word than subsidies might be "advantages." It's also unclear how a
mere "tone" can be worth billions of dollars. Doesn't there have to be actual deregulation, and not just the tone of it, before there's any change in the earnings of the energy companies?
An article in the national section of today's
(12 May 2001) New York Times runs under the headline, "Bush Is Choosing
Industry Insiders to Fill Several Environmental Positions." The article
reports, "Many of these candidates share a pro-property rights philosophy
as well as a libertarian leaning." The December 31, 2000, issue of Smartertimes.com
asked, "Have the Times and its liberal allies really come to the point
where they believe that merely advocating property rights is enough to make a
person's fitness for government service a matter of contention?"
And the Times's own weekly internal critique picked up the point, citing the
newspaper's December 31 usage in addition to one on January 3, 2001, and
writing, "To say that someone is an 'advocate of property rights' probably
has some special insider meaning in Washington. But to the general reader, it
doesn't make much sense without explanation. We are ALL advocates of property
What's amazing is that the Times continues to use this "pro-property
rights" phrase to assail Bush nominees, even after that memo from the Times
news desk. Why bother sending these memos around if the reporters and editors
are going to disregard them and adhere to their previous practices? Maybe the
presumption that "We are ALL advocates of property rights" turns out
to be mistaken.
Death by Conservation
The lead, front-page news article in the 1st May 2001 New York Times reports on America's energy policy. The article describes a report "to be released later this week" by "the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy." The report, the Times says, "estimates that raising the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by what it calls a modest amount could do far more to reduce reliance on imported oil than drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."
The Times goes on about this report for four paragraphs, including one that is a subtle dig at the vice president: "Mr. Cheney did not discuss the merits of raising government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in his address today. But he strongly defended the administration's proposal to allow drilling for oil and gas in the Alaskan refuge."
Nowhere does the Times disclose to its readers that this American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is funded partly by utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Boston Edison and Southern California Edison. The council is also partly funded by companies with an interest in promoting solar energy. And the Council's board of directors includes representatives of those companies. Raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars probably would reduce reliance on imported oil, but it would also probably increase reliance on electricity produced by those utilities and used to charge electric cars. The Times also doesn't mention that increased fuel efficiency standards probably mean lighter, smaller cars -- and more highway deaths in car crashes as a result.
It's no more responsible of the Times to report on this study by the "American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy" without mentioning the financial interests of the study's funders than it would be for the Times to report on medical research funded by drug companies without mentioning that the drug companies are funding the research. Far be it from
Smartertimes.com to suggest that studies partly funded by private industry are any less credible than those funded solely by tax dollars or by universities. But disclosing the source of the funding would at least allow readers to weigh such issues for themselves. As it is, the typical New York Times reader, without the benefit of
Smartertimes.com, would have no idea that this study by the "American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy" was partly funded by utilities.