Cato and the Kochs

I used to work at Cato, so lot of people have asked me about the ongoing battle for control of the institute. Here's what I think. What I think is that so far the rhetoric around the controversy illustrates Tyler Cowen's dumbifying principle:  "Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more." I don't think Ed Crane and the Cato incumbents are especially good. I don't think the Kochs are especially evil. 


It seems clear enough that the Kochs are trying to take over by stacking the board. I have no idea what they're up to, but judging from their board nominees and appointees, it doesn't look at all good. On the other hand, the hand-wringing over the new Koch-nominated board members--Ted Olson, Andrew Napolitano, Nancy Pfotenhauer, and Kevin Gentry--strikes me as overwrought. It's worth noting that David Koch has been on the Cato board for years, the whole time I was employed there and more, and I don't remember anyone once suggesting he was an ideological or strategic danger to Cato's mission. But suddenly he's an existential threat! Cato and Cato's chairman Bob Levy didn't seem to have a huge problem with Ted Olson, a Solicitor General under G.W. Bush, when he was at Cato arguing for gay marriage on constitutional grounds. Andrew Napolitano is a stout libertarian who put a ton of Cato guys on Freedom Watch, his recently cancelled show on Fox Business. Cato executive VP David Boaz seems to get along pretty well, ideologically and otherwise, with Napolitano in this recent clip. Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former G.W. Bush and John McCain campaign operative, strikes me as a classic right-leaning fusionist, of which there are not a few at Cato. That she was married for a while to Cato senior fellow Dan Mitchell I think suggests that she does not inhabit an ideological/institutional universe foreign to Cato, as does the fact that the Independent Women's Forum, of which Pfotenhauer was for years the president, is currently run by Cato alum Carrie Lukas. Kevin Gentry is a hard-core Virginia Republican Party operative with whom I worked back when I was at the Institute for Humane Studies and the Mercatus Center. He's a fundraiser. 

And, hey, what about IHS and Mercatus?  I'll get to that in a second. One more thing about the board. The new members, except maybe for Napolitano, are indeed both Koch and GOP operatives. They certainly represent a bid for control. And they displaced several of Cato's most generous and involved long-time donors. I can understand why the current management is outraged. My point is that the new board members' brand of odious right-fusionist politics isn't obviously incompatible with Cato's mission, or significantly different from David Koch's.

The way Cato has so eagerly jumped on the Koch-bashing bandwagon in its hour of crisis strikes me as both transparently opportunistic and damaging to the broader libertarian movement. Charles Koch is the chairman of the board at the Institute for Humane Studies which as far as I can see has not become a whit less libertarian in orientation over the past several years. When I worked there, Charles Koch was also chairman of the Mercatus Center's board and he's on the board currently (but I can't tell from the Mercatus website who the chair is, if they have one.) A number of Mercatus' policy staff once worked at Cato and they don't seem to have changed their ideological orientation at all. Is Cato's management now arguing that Mercatus' scholars labor under a cloud of partisanship which threatens the independence and integrity of their work? Is Cato's management arguing that IHS's libertarian principles are now suddenly threatened by Charles Koch's money and leadership? Cato has worked closely with IHS for decades, and has long been a proud host each summer of a number of IHS Charles G. Koch Summer Fellows. Cato's worries about Charles Koch's baleful un-libertarian influence are completely new to me! That CGK is a partisan threat to an independent libertarian perspective is now a very popular idea at Cato that coincides exactly and suspiciously with the onset of CGK's attempt to capture control of the institution he co-founded. If David Koch is such a danger, why wasn't he one last year? As John Stossel used to say, "Gimme a break!" 

I like the old Cato board members more than the new Cato board members. And I do suspect that a Koch-controlled Cato would work more closely with the Republican Party, which I don't at all like. Yet I've seen very little evidence that a Koch-controlled Cato would look a lot different ideologically than Cato does currently. However, there's every reason to believe that most of the current management would be pushed out of a Koch-controlled Cato, which I suspect is really the current management's biggest worry. The argument that widespread knowledge of actual Koch control would delegitimize Cato's work seems to me quite weak. The facts that Charles Koch co-founded Cato and that David Koch has been on the board for years and years was more than proof enough for anyone inclined to write off Cato as a Koch-run organ of the oligarchy before the coup attempt. Should the Kochs succeed, nothing much will change in this regard. The right way to look at the PR question is that the takeover attempt is temporarily a huge PR win for Cato, scored at the expense of other Koch-affiliated institutions. If Crane and Co. succesfully thwart the takeover, they'll be able to enjoy the PR boost for a good while longer.

The argument that Koch control of Cato would threaten the intellectual independence of Cato scholars also seems weak to me. This is in part because I don't know of any such problem at Mercatus, the most closely analogous Kochtopus institution, and in part because I doubt that the intellectual independence of Cato scholars is among the current management's main priorities.

All that said, I think it's better for libertarians if some prominent libertarian institutions remain outside the Kochtopus and that Julian Sanchez's presignation letter doesn't kick into effect. Still, this isn't a battle between good and evil, and the stakes are probably lower than you think. Of course, nobody likes to be on the wrong side of creative destruction's wrecking ball, but it can be indispensable and revitalizing, even for ideological movements.   

Picture courtesy of the author.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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