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I really have to hand it to Fox News: they always know just what side of any story they are supposed to promote, and are often quicker to leap to that all-important conclusion than anyone else would dare. If your first instincts, when watching Hurricane Irene barrel towards the east coast a week ago, was  "you know, this proves that we really need to get rid of government weather monitoring services", congratulations: you are Fox News' target audience.

Taking on our possibly socialist presumptions that government might have a role in warning citizens of possible imminent doom were, for this particular exercise, Competitive Enterprise Institute pundits Iain Murray and David Bier:

As Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast, news stations bombard our televisions with constant updates from the National Hurricane Center.

While Americans ought to prepare for the coming storm, federal dollars need not subsidize their preparations. Although it might sound outrageous, the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America’s past that have actually outlived their usefulness.

The National Weather Service (NWS) was founded in 1870. Originally, the NWS was not a public information agency. It was a national security agency and placed under the Department of War. The Service’s national security function has long since disappeared, but as agencies often do, however, it stuck around and managed to increase its budget.

I think any libertarian worth their salt can recognize that if something is being done for military purposes, it is a valid use of government, but as soon as it begins to have some small use to the general public it is time to axe that bastard thing right then and there. All was fine and good when we were just protecting armies and navies from hurricanes, but protecting you, and your kids, and the Chick-fil-A down the street? Bite me, you communists.

From these austerely premised beginnings, the CEI "researchers" (Vice President and Research Assistant, actually, so I will average it out with the more general term, if they do not mind) go on to actually argue their case:

Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds’ thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting.

You can nearly hear the sneer, as they talk about how the NWS "hijacks" radio and television stations to warn people of an oncoming hurricane a third of the size of the entire east coast. For the public interest, no less!

But here we have a fine libertarian point. Why should it be up to government to force warnings of natural disasters? Should not the free market take care of this?

Rather than interrupting programming in order to let citizens know of imminent danger, perhaps we should let individual channels decide if they want to warn citizens or not (it depends on whether commercial sponsorship of said imminent doom is available, of course.) If any particular citizen tends to watch channels that do not broadcast sufficient warnings of oncoming hurricanes, then those citizens should die, because they made poor market choices. And, after, all, if a given television station tends to not warn their viewers of natural disasters, their viewers will die in greater numbers than those of competing stations, thus lowering the station's overall market share. The free market works!

The editorial authors seem to imply here that it is the responsibility of every citizen to watch the weather channel or buy weather-related apps for their phone, and that really is the most we can do for them. Here is my counterargument, however: surely, the esteemed "researchers" (I admit, I love the phrase: it is like putting bells on a turtle and calling it an ice cream truck) would agree that if the United States were invaded by another country, we would want a system for warning our citizens of the movements of the enemy as quickly as possible. Otherwise, all of our rag-tag militias, groups that have spent years and countless sums of money to be prepared for that very eventuality, stockpiling weapons and ammunition, training themselves and so on, would not efficiently know where to go in order to defend our great nation.

So if we agree that we need a national warning system in case of invasion by the communist Chinese or an emboldened Vladimir Putin, would not it be sensible to keep warning citizens of tornados, hurricanes and the like as well? Think of it merely as practice. If Hurricane Irene was instead not a hurricane, but an army, led not by someone named Irene but someone named Ivan, the government would be all over it. Therefore, we need to just pretend that the (suspiciously foreign-originating) hurricanes invading us in order to kill our citizens and destroy our towns and cities are instead evil fasci-commu-socialists invading us in order to kill our citizens and destroy our towns and cities: now warning our population is not petty public interest, it is a national security training drill. Think of every raindrop as a wet, tiny communist.

[Continued below the fold]

The NWS claims that it supports industries like aviation and shipping, but if they provide a valuable contribution to business, it stands to reason business would willingly support their services. If that is the case, the Service is just corporate welfare. If they would not, it is just a waste.

As for hurricanes, the insurance industry has a compelling interest in understanding them. In a world without a National Weather Service, the insurance industry would probably have sponsored something very like the National Hurricane Center at one or more universities. Those replacements would also not be exploited for political purposes.

Yes, we may claim that whether monitoring "supports" industries like aviation and shipping, but we could also simply say it doesn't and be done with it. Or we could say that it does support businesses like that, in which case they should be paying for it. A novel thought forms—you know how we could have them pay for it? We could charge them a goddamn tax, thus making them pay for it. No, that would be socialism: better would be to strip the National Weather Service, forcing businesses to either fend for themselves or band together in some sort of collective that would pay to recreate that exact same service, but privatized. How would that be better? We have no fucking idea, honestly. Something about socialism, again.

Now, I want you to close your eyes and imagine a world in which the insurance industry, that wonderful paragon of good planning and not at all crooked behavior, is put in charge of monitoring national weather patterns (through subsidiary companies, of course) and estimating potential liabilities that might relate from that weather. It stands to reason that they would not share that weather information with customers: it would be proprietary data, after all. It stands to reason that they also would not be eager to share long-term information with outside investors or other insurance companies, since a good part of competitive advantage would be knowing something about, for example, flood patterns that nobody else knew, enabling them to adjust their own prices in accordance.

Before long, you would have bundling of insurance policies based on private weather predictions, and a derivatives market based on those polices, and rebundling of those derivatives, and it would never be quite clear who was bending their weather "risk assessments" in what ways in order to unload crap policies onto the market, and... hmm. It sounds vaguely familiar. Hurricane derivatives sounds like a double disaster, merely from the two words involved.

Ignoring all that, however, I am trying to imagine the titans of Wall Street launching satellites into space to better monitor the weather, when for their purposes just knowing past trends would be (1) nearly free and (2) nearly as useful, from a statistical standpoint. No, insurance companies do not necessarily have market motivation to let individual citizens or policyholders know when they are about to potentially die in a devastating hurricane: they just need to keep statistics on how likely it is those individuals might die. No satellite is needed for that, and certainly no national warning system. If a devastating storm does hit, let's say after the insurance industry as a whole made spectacularly wrong estimations of how devastating it was going to be, I think we can all be confident that the industry will be bailed out by the government after the fact. Private risk for citizens, after all, but socialism for industry.

I'm going to just pause here to note that these "researchers" (again, I am compelled to use the phrase: I can see the Bunsen burners all in a row, our heros working through the night to determine the chemical bonds most responsible for selfish non-job-creating citizens not being willing to die trapped in their attics by floodwaters just to save their betters a few dollars each) think that the insurance companies privately financing a spacefaring weather research effort could not possibly turn political. How very adorable.

As it stands today, the public is forced to pay more than $1 billion per year for the NWS.  With the federal deficit exceeding a trillion dollars, the NWS is easily overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. It may actually be dangerous.

Wait, we're talking about one billion dollars? Please—our politicians spend one billion dollars a year buying themselves whiskey-flavored dental floss.

But now we are about to reach the meat of the matter: having the government monitoring and predicting the weather is not just inefficient and duplicative, it is dangerous. Do go on.

Relying on inaccurate government reports can endanger lives. Last year the Service failed to predict major flooding in Nashville because it miscalculated the rate at which water was releasing from dams there. The NWS continued to rely on bad information, even after forecasters knew the data were inaccurate. The flooding resulted in 22 deaths.

Premise: weather predictions are inexact, presumably only because people who work for the government are stupid or something. But if government weather predictions are faulty, it could risk lives.

Solution: stop giving government weather predictions at all. That will save lives! Problem solved.

Private weather services do exist, and unsurprisingly, they are better than the NWS. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the National Weather Service was twelve hours behind AccuWeather in predicting that New Orleans would be affected. Unlike the NWS, AccuWeather provides precise hour-by-hour storm predictions, one of the reasons private industry supports them.

I am going to need to pause here for a moment, because my entire liberal worldview has been shattered. After a few false starts, we are on to something: the logic here is impeccable. A private service exists that, at least in one particular case, better predicted a weather occurrence than the government effort.

How can this be? Does not this then prove that the government effort is redundant—nay, inferior?

Well, I am no think-tank researcher (I have often wanted to dump a glass of water onto a rich fellow's head, just to objectively analyze the resulting reaction, for science, but never gotten up the courage to perform the experiment), so I could only drag my sorry soul over to Wikipedia to look up AccuWeather, this private company that kicks the ass of the National Weather Service to such an extent as to prove them unnecessary...

AccuWeather markets weather products and services, with 175,000 clients worldwide in media, business and government.[2] It also runs the free, advertising-supported website AccuWeather.com, an online weather provider. The company claims that the AccuWeather brand and weather are presented to over 110 million people every day. AccuWeather employs 404 persons, of whom 113 are meteorologists.

AccuWeather's forecasts and services are based on weather information derived from numerous sources, including weather observations and data gathered by the National Weather Service and meteorological organizations outside the United States, and from information provided by non-meteorological organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the armed forces.

Wait, AccuWeather is using data collected by the National Weather Service? How is this possible?

Just what sort of fucking anti-Randian corporate freeloading socialist data-whore would rely on the government to collect their goddamn weather data for them? Wasn't this just cited as the company that made that very government agency obsolete?

My confidence in a public-sector role for weather information has been saved, but let us alternatively suppose that we turn over the satellites to AccuWeather and be done with it. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, wait, there is a bit more to the Wikipedia page...

AccuWeather created a unified value known as "The AccuWeather Exclusive RealFeel Temperature." The formula for calculating this value incorporates the effects of temperature, wind, humidity, sunshine intensity, cloudiness, precipitation and elevation on the human body. AccuWeather has been granted a United States patent on The RealFeel  Temperature,[7] but the formula has not been reviewed by other meteorological authorities.

Oh my: this is a breakthrough. The AccuWeather Exclusive RealFeel Temperature system, a method of telling you what temperature it "feels like" outside that has been patented by the company involved. I can practically see the future of meteorology from here, and it looks like ... hmm. Patent application forms, mostly.

Let us reflect on all of this for a moment, and on the implications of the premise the CEI researchers are promoting. You may recall that AccuWeather got in a bit of hot water last decade, when Rick Santorum introduced a bill that would have made it illegal for the government to compete with the company in the weather-forecasting business; I do not know whether AccuWeather officers have (cough) similarly given any donations to the Competitive Enterprise Institute that would coincide awkwardly with this particular opinion article, but because I am not a think-tank "researcher" I cannot possibly be bothered to look it up right now. But let us say that the government should not warn citizens of impending weather-related natural disasters, but instead it should be left to private companies such as AccuWeather. Take that to the logical conclusion: does that mean that only those that pay for AccuWeather or similar service should have access to the information?

Up above, it was stated directly that AccuWeather predicted where Hurricane Katrina would make landfall twelve hours before the National Weather Service did. Let us imagine they did this because of a patented "formula" not available to other weather researchers or to the NWS: let us simply take it at face value that they have made a breakthrough in weather prediction that could save, all told, countless lives...

...and, as private enterprise, have no intention of telling anyone about it. At least, not without being paid.

I am imagining a near-future world in which weather forecasts themselves are patented. All of them. There is no public service to do it, and there is no research except that funded by private industries, and whether or not any of them will tell you whether a hurricane is going to hit your particular town depends on whether or not you personally pay them to do it. That seems a rather bleak premise, I admit, but remember: we are trying to avoid communism here, or socialism, or paying a cent of taxes that might go towards helping anyone but our own selves. Suppose then that you pay for the AccuWeather patented forecast, but casually also mention to your neighbor that a class eleventy-and-a-half hurricane is coming and that they had better get their sorry ass to higher ground: does warning your neighbor, who has not paid for this lifesaving information himself, constitute a copyright violation? Do they owe AccuWeather an after-the-fact fee for the service? Do you? Are you bound for jail, for passing this information along?

I am no think-tank researcher, so I cannot possibly answer a question like this. There once was a time, I think, when it was considered good form if, supposing you came along with a particular process or formula that could help to revolutionize your field and save many, many lives, you might share your discovery with the wider scientific community so that they could build on it, and improve it further. That is supposing you were a socialist, of course, or gave a shit about humanity as a whole. These days it is hardly worth saving a life if you cannot patent the method to do it.

It is not just random mistakes in crises either. Forecast Watch has found that the National Weather Service predictions of snow and rain have an error rate 20 percent higher than their private alternatives. “All private forecasting companies did much better than the National Weather Service,” their report concludes. In 2008, they found that the NWS’s temperature predictions were worse than every private-sector competitor including the Weather Channel, Intellicast, and Weather Underground. Even NWS’s online ZIP code search for weather reports is in some cases totally inaccurate, giving reports for areas hundreds of miles away.

Translation: the NWS website sucks and has zip code related bugs. This hardly seems an offense for which capital punishment should apply—and if it is, I would like to submit a list of other websites that should be nuked from orbit—but there you are.

But taking the claims of the think-tank researchers (there is the turtle again: I have put him on a roller skate, and now he is a 19th century steam-powered railroad engine, or close enough to it) completely at face value, I will say, I would be disappointed if it is true that the NWS has higher error rates than AccuWeather or the Weather Channel, who take government-provided NWS data and do unspecified somethings to it to get better results. But I still would like to understand the reason for it, if true, other than a blanket assertion that anything anywhere will suck worse if you label it part of the government than if you do not. Would such a problem result from an emphasis on macro-trends, rather than microclimates? From an extreme funding bias towards data collection, and less emphasis on day-to-day forecasting? I do not know, I am not a think-tank researcher.

NWS claims to spread information, but when the topic of budget cuts came up earlier this year, all they spread was fear. “There is a very heightened risk for loss of life if these cuts go through,” NWS forecasters said, “The inability for warnings to be disseminated to the public, whether due to staffing inadequacies, radar maintenance problems or weather radio transmitter difficulties, would be disastrous.”

Disastrous? The $126 million in cuts would still have left the Service with a larger budget than it had a decade ago. The massive bloat in government should not get a pass just because it’s wrapped in good-of-the-community clothing. NWS services can and are better provided by the private sector. Americans will invest in weather forecasting because if there is one thing we can be certain of, people will want to protect their property and their lives.

And fin. I must say that even after parsing the entire thing, I am still not sure what the editorialists are after, here. They started with the assertion that the National Weather Service should be expunged; they end seemingly with a call for it to merely be trimmed. Or not, I can't tell.

Cuts earlier this year proposed lopping thirty percent of the NWS budget, resulting in furloughs or the closing of regional weather centers. Proposed NWS/NOAA cuts included delaying the replacement of satellites, leading to coverage gaps, and cuts to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (too akin to volcano monitoring, I suppose); yes, I suppose if you count "don't replace weather satellites" as valid policy option, you too can cut whopping amounts from the federal budget.

The National Weather Service collects nationwide data from radar, satellites, buoys, weather stations and so on; they then provide this data to the Wonderous And Always Better Free Market for them to use to . I question whether AccuWeather or other companies would be quite so competitive, if left to assemble such data themselves. No matter: I am sure the "correct" answer for the Competitive Enterprise Institute is that the government should do the expensive part, and private companies should get the rewards, gratis.

As Rick Santorum once demanded in nearly identical language, supporting the identical private company, we simply need to provide the benefits of a national, government funded enterprise (one billion dollars does not sound like all that much, for a nationwide data collection and weather forecasting system, I must say) while demanding that citizens see not one damn bit of value from it without first funneling it through for-profit industries that can squeeze those citizens for a bit more cash. You pay taxes to collect information from the satellites; the government collects the data and gives it to private companies for free or for a meager fee; the Free Fucking Market charges you to get your own data back in any useful form (say, by warning you of upcoming storms or hurricanes or tsunamis) rather than the cruel government warning you of those storms or hurricanes or tsunamis itself. Right?

Well, when you put it like that, I admit it does sound like a complete scam. Ah well; avoiding socialism is often like that, I suppose.

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