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The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism–violent Salafists or traditional “right wing” extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it’s the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO’s report:

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent). 

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist. 

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states “Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”

With respect to the alleged role of Salafist ideology in motivating domestic acts of terror, the Brennan Center study quotes the FBI’s own assessment on the topic:

It is difficult to quantify the degree to which Islamist materials and ideologues — such as Anwar al-Aulaqi (US Person), Abdullah e-Faisal, and Feiz Muhammed, all of whom appeal to English-speaking audiences — played a part in the radicalization of the persons included in this assessment. … While Internet personalities are often cited as a source of radicalization, factors outside the scope of this assessment — such as social environment and personal psychology (how a person processes both external and internal messaging) — were also influential. 

As for claims that there are a combination of indicators that, if detected early enough, can tell family, friends, or local authorities who may be on the path to terrorism, the Brennan Center report uses the research and conclusions of former CIA officer Marc Sageman to rebut the notion. “…we still do not know what leads people to engage in political violence. Attempts to discern a terrorist ‘profile’ or to model terrorist behavior have failed to yield lasting insights.” 

That hasn’t stopped the FBI, via it’s now-infamous “Don’t Be A Puppet” website, from continuing to peddle the debunked “terrorist profile” concept. And as the Brennan Center report lays out, the FBI is only one of a number of federal, state, or local entities using discredited “terrorist profile” models.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House members who originally requested that GAO look at federal CVE programs–including Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and ranking member Claire McCaskill (D-MO), along with House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-MS)–did not ask GAO to evaluate the theories and assumptions underlying federal CVE programs. Accordingly, the audit offers recommendations for tinkering with programs that discriminatorily and disproportionately target the Arab/Muslim-American community on the basis of long-since debunked notions about who and why someone becomes a terrorist. 

House and Senate members need to base federal counterterrorism policies on facts–such as the role U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world plays in fueling terrorism. Members of Congress who want to win the war of “hearts and minds” vis a vis ISIS need to remember that our greatest weapon is a strict adherence to constitutional norms of free association and speech, and that targeting fellow citizens of Arab descent or the Muslim faith for evidence-free surveillance and political repression only validates the ISIS narrative that America is at war with the Muslim and Arab world.


CBS reports that President Trump plans to name Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA) to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an office colloquially known as the federal government’s “Drug Czar.”

Rep. Marino has a long history of taking a hard line on the drug war. He voted against the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment that barred the Department of Justice from spending federal funds to prosecute state-legal medicinal marijuana operations. The amendment, which has passed several times with bipartisan support, allows state medical marijuana industries to function without the constant fear of federal prosecution. Rep. Marino also voted to prevent Veterans’ Affairs doctors at facilities in states with legal marijuana from prescribing medical marijuana to their patients.

While the Drug Czar has a limited impact on policy, the appointment of Rep. Marino is another red flag for marijuana reform advocates.

44 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of legal cannabis consumption, including eight states (and D.C.) which have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The dire predictions of drug warriors in those states have not come true.

As we’ve noted before, Donald Trump campaigned on a relatively moderate platform regarding marijuana legalization, but his choices for key drug policy positions in the administration continue to raise the specter of a federal crackdown on marijuana reform efforts.

Of course the drug war isn’t just about marijuana.  A new Cato policy analysis from Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall demonstrates how four decades of a hardline approach to drug policy in America have failed. 

With a growing heroin and opioid epidemic, it’s time to ditch the failed prohibitionist policies of the drug war. Countries like Portugal have successfully abandoned the militarized approach to drug policy; it’s time for the United States to do the same. 

Unfortunately, President Trump appears to be moving in the wrong direction.

President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has released a “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.” The 14-page memo from OMB director Mick Mulvaney creates a process for executive branch leaders to produce a detailed plan to cut the government. The final plan will be included in the fiscal year 2019 budget a year from now.

The core of the process is that the president is requiring federal agencies to prepare Agency Reform Plans by this September, with draft plans due June 30. Agencies must come up with downsizing “proposals in four categories: eliminate activities, restructure or merge, improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness, and workforce management.” Agencies “should focus on fundamental scoping questions (i.e. analyzing whether activities should or should not be performed by the agency).”

Some of the factors that agencies should consider when doing their “fundamental scoping” are whether activities are nonessential, whether they violate federalism, and whether they would flunk a cost-benefit test. Agencies should propose eliminating activities that do not pass muster on these and other criteria.

Director Mulvaney is trying to get federal bureaucracies to reconsider all of their activities in a bottom-up manner. The downsizing process he has launched will include actions that the president and agencies can take administratively, and reforms that will need legislation passed by Congress.

Aside from pushing agencies to identify savings, the OMB will work over the next year to propose and implement crosscutting reforms that affect all agencies. One theme in the memo is the need to cut the federal civilian workforce. The memo encourages agencies to implement near-term cuts and to develop plans to reduce workforces over the next four years. The memo is right that “technology may have changed or eliminated the need for some positions.”

The memo provides a good framework for pursuing federal downsizing. Some agencies will probably drag their heels and try to include just minor-league reforms in their plans. But the OMB will be overseeing the development of the plans, and will hound agencies to think big. It will also be important for the administration to fill top positions in agencies with leaders who have a zeal for cutting.

Support from congressional Republicans is also needed. The reform effort will be undermined if members simply whine and grumble when the administration suggests trims to their favored programs. When Trump’s “skinny budget” was released in March, the response of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was to announce that he would not allow cuts to an obscure $120 million pork barrel program that favors his state. But if the party leader selfishly rejects such a tiny cut, how does he expect any other member to accept cuts to any of the programs they favor?

If the Trump-Mulvaney budget reform effort is to be successful, we are going to need congressional leaders to act as actual leaders. And that means putting the broad public interest in spending control ahead of narrow parochial interests.

Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing on the new plan is here.  

For comments on previous OMB reform actions, see here, here, here, and here.

Although it has gained many converts since 2008, thanks especially to tireless crusading on its behalf by Scott Sumner, David Beckworth, and Lars Christensen, among other “Market Monetarists,” the suggestion that the Fed ought to stabilize, not the inflation rate, or employment, but the growth rate of overall spending on goods and services, still strikes many people as odd, if not positively barmy.

Being, as it were, a sort of Market Monetarist avant le letter  (for I first came to regard a stable level of overall spending as the sine qua none of a sound monetary regime while writing my dissertation ages ago), I naturally find the monetary policy credos of bona fide Market Monetarists as incontestably appealing as apple pie and baseball are to most full-blooded Americans.

My particular understanding of the case for stable spending is, nonetheless, mine alone, and as such somewhat distinct from that of my Market Monetarist brethren. So I thought I might venture, with all due humility, to try my hand at conveying that understanding to those curious but skeptical unbelievers among my cherished readers, by way of an imaginary exchange of questions and answers, where the questions are the unbelievers’, and the answers are my own.


What exactly do you mean by “overall spending on goods and services”?

I mean the total quantity of money — of dollars, in our case — that consumers hand over to sellers in exchange for finished or “final” goods and services (as opposed to intermediate goods or factors of production) over the course of some definite period of time.

The most  popular measure of such spending is called “Nominal Gross Domestic Product,” or Nominal GDP, which according to the IMF “measures the monetary value of final goods and services — that is, those that are bought by the final user — produced in a country in a given period of time (say a quarter or a year).” For 2016, total U.S. Nominal GDP was about $18.9 trillion, which was just under 3.6 percent higher than its level in 2015.

Strictly speaking, Nominal GDP measures the value of goods and services produced, rather than goods and services actually sold to consumers: the difference consists of changes to firms’ inventories. A different statistic, “Final Sales to Domestic Purchasers,” distinguishes actual sales from output. Final sales for 2016, at over $19.36 trillion, exceeded Nominal GDP, which means that firms’ inventories were declining. The year-over-year growth rate of final sales, at 3.64 percent, was also slightly higher than that of Nominal GDP.

Why is it desirable that spending should be kept stable?

Because a stable level of overall spending, meaning in practice a level that grows at a modest and steady rate, helps to avoid recessions on one hand and unsustainable booms on the other.

What exactly do you mean by “recession”?

I mean a circumstance in which businesses as a whole are losing money — that is, taking in less than they spent, allowing for a “normal” return such as they might have earned by just investing the same amount in safe bonds. Alternatively, if you will allow me to oversimplify a bit for the sake of brevity, one might say that during a recession the “average” firm is losing money.

OK, I can see what you mean by that. But then, is the fact that a firm loses money necessarily to be regretted? Surely some firms ought to go out of business, or at least to cut back on it!

Of course some should! And that’s not necessarily a problem. So long as the losses of some firms are matched by the extraordinary profits of others, there needn’t be any unemployment, either of labor or of other resources. Instead, if the pattern persists, resources will move from the losing to the gaining businesses. And that’s just what has to happen if there’s to be as little waste as possible.

If, on the other hand, spending as a whole shrinks, there are more unprofitable firms that have to  dispense with workers than profitable ones seeking to hire more of them.

So the monetary authority would be justified in allowing the money stock to increase in the case where spending will shrink otherwise, but not to help firms that are in trouble despite stable spending growth?

That’s correct. Resorting to money creation to help particular firms or industries, when the “average” firm isn’t in trouble, only serves, first, to delay desirable changes in how inputs (the materials and labor businesses bring together in assembling their products) are employed and, eventually, to raise the prices of both those scarce inputs themselves and the product made using them.

But then why worry if the “average” firm loses money?

I repeat: for that to happen, it must be the case that the receipts of industry taken as a whole fall short of its expenses, or of its expenses plus a normal profit. In that case, few if any firms are inclined to hire more workers and to otherwise expand production, while others must curtail production and lay off workers. That spells general unemployment, that is, a recession.

Why should more money creation be useful in this case?

A decline in the “average” firm’s revenues can only happen if people are spending less on goods and services, that is, if they decide to hold more money. Some expansion of the money supply can serve to make up for that extra demand for money, reviving spending just enough to make our average firm break even again. Individual firms might still fail; but then others would prosper. So long as total spending by the public on goods and services is stable, or increasing at a modest rate, firms as a whole — hence the average firm — can’t be losing money.

So all that’s needed to avoid hard times is to keep money flowing?

Whoa! Not so fast.  What I’m saying is that so long as there’s no decline in overall spending, either absolutely or relative to some modest growth rate, there won’t be recessions. But there can still be hard times: production could suffer because of wars, or bad harvests, or trade embargoes, or all sorts of other bad things. In economists’ lingo, there might be “negative supply shocks.” But there’s nothing central bankers can do about them — indeed, no monetary system of any sort can do anything about them. Nothing that’s likely to help, anyway.

OK. So suppose they just stick to worrying about spending. How can the authorities know whether they are allowing for sufficient money growth, that is, whether monetary policy is or isn’t sufficiently “easy”? Must they keep track of how many firms fail?


Of course not! They just have to keep track of total spending itself.  To do that, they can look at the statistics like Nominal GDP, or Final Sales to Domestic Consumers.

Sounds easy!

Well, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s still a tricky business. Those spending statistics don’t come out very often. They also tend to get revised. So there’s plenty of guesswork involved, and corresponding room for mistakes. But the principle is still sound— and even allowing for mistakes, a monetary policy that’s based on wrong principles is bound to be worse.

OK. I get the idea that too little spending can be bad news. But can there really be such a thing as too much spending as well?

There sure can be! Just as too little spending means that the average firm suffers a loss, too much means that the average firm is making extraordinary profits, meaning profits well beyond what it needs to stay in business.

Is that bad?

It is, because it must lead to inflation in the long run — or an inflation of input prices at any rate — and may result in an unsustainable price boom in the short run.

How does too much spending cause a boom?

As I said, excessive spending causes the average firm, or firms as a whole, to enjoy extraordinary profits, at least for a time. Stock prices reflect firms’ expected profitability, so it’s natural for stock prices to rise when profits themselves rise unexpectedly, as will tend to happen if spending on goods and services itself accelerates unexpectedly.

And why should the boom not be sustainable?

Because, when firms are enjoying extraordinary profits, they endeavor to acquire more inputs so as to expand production. But when all, or most, firms are trying to do this, they only succeed in bidding-up input prices, because in normal times there are only so many inputs to go around. As input prices go up, so do firms’ unit production costs. Their once extraordinary profits therefore cease to be so. When word of this hits the street, stock prices go back down as well.

O.K., I see why too much spending can cause an unsustainable boom. So, does that mean that the monetary authorities need to look out for such booms so as to put a stop to them?

Not at all! Monetary authorities are no better at telling whether a boom is sustainable or not than ordinary investors. If anything, they tend to be worse, in part because they have less to lose if they’re wrong.

So what should the authorities do to prevent unsustainable booms?

I’ve already told you: they need only pay attention to total spending, that is, nominal GDP or some similar measure, making sure that it isn’t growing too rapidly. So long as it doesn’t, there won’t be any unsustainable booms — at least, none for which monetary policy is to blame.

But how rapidly is “too rapidly”?

Now there’s a good question! There’s room for expert disagreement on this point, but the disagreements aren’t dramatic ones. Some would have spending grow enough to result in an average inflation rate of 2 percent, which is the rate most monetary authorities favor. That means letting spending grow at a rate equal to the economy’s long-run real growth rate, plus another two percentage points, or at around 4-5 percent per year.

Yours truly, on the other hand, has argued that the most stable arrangement is one that lets spending grow only enough to compensate for growth in the economy’s workforce and capital stock, which in the U.S. today would mean having it grow at a rate of 2 or 3 percent per year. Since having spending grow at a steady rate means letting the inflation rate mirror the rate at which the economy’s overall productivity improves, such a modest rate of spending growth would actually result in mild deflation much of the time. Since the deflation would reflect falling production costs, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Of course there are those who hold other views, most of which (though not all) lie somewhere between the two I’ve just described.

Hmm. You are starting to get fancy. Why not just have the monetary authorities target a particular rate of inflation, or, if one prefers, deflation, instead of targeting spending?

Because stable spending is what’s required to keep firms from either generally losing money or generally enjoying unsustainable profits. A stable inflation (or deflation) rate isn’t generally consistent with that outcome.

Why not?

Because an economy’s inflation rate depends on two things. The first is how much people spend. The second is how many real goods and services firms are able to supply using the inputs they buy. If the rate of growth of spending is itself stable, the inflation can still vary as productivity (the output produced from any given amount of inputs) varies. So long as productivity fluctuates, a stable flow of spending requires a fluctuating rate of inflation. Keeping inflation stable, on the other hand, would mean letting spending fluctuate. And we’ve already seen that fluctuations in spending aren’t consistent with avoiding unsustainable booms and busts.

I suppose. But just how much harm could possibly come from, say, sticking to a constant rate of inflation?

Plenty, actually. Let me give you a for instance.  Remember what I said about negative supply shocks — you know,  wars and bad harvests and all that?

Yeah, sure. Causes of hard times that monetary policy can’t fix.

Exactly! But while no monetary policy or regime can undo the harm done by a negative supply shock, the wrong sort of policy can make things worse. Suppose, for example, that a country becomes the victim of a blockade. Because fewer goods are available, people are bound to be worse off.  If spending stays stable, the shortage of goods will also mean higher prices all around.

Right! So why not at least take steps to prevent the inflation? People are already suffering enough!

No, no no!  You’ve got it all wrong. The inflation in this case is just a reflection of the fact that goods are scarcer than usual. The economy is only suffering from one “bad” thing — not two! Suppose the authorities decided to “do something” about the inflation. What would it be? The answer is that they’d have to tighten money, and limit spending, to keep prices from going up. In other words, to make up for the greater scarcity of goods, they’d be making money more scarce as well! So instead of just finding that their incomes don’t buy as many goods as before, now people get fewer goods and less income to buy them with!

So stable spending really does beat stable inflation. You know, I think I’m starting to get it! 

Kudos to you!

But you still haven’t explained which view regarding just how quickly spending ought to grow is the correct one.

That’s true. But really, the actual spending growth rate matters a lot less than having spending grow at some steady and predictable rate. For once people and businesses become accustomed to that rate, the mere fact that they know and can predict it will suffice to rule out serious business cycles, at least so far as monetary policy can do that. So why don’t we leave it at that for now. Getting people to see why responsible monetary policy is fundamentally about keeping spending stable is hard enough as it is, without trying to convince them that a spending growth rate of 4 percent is a whole lot better than one of 2 percent!

O.K., I get that. But all this talk about the right monetary “policy” makes me uncomfortable. Why entrust the management of money to a bunch of bureaucrats in the first place?

Congratulations! By asking that intelligent question, you have earned a place at the head of the class!

The truth is that, so long as we rely on discretion-wielding central bankers to manage national money stocks, we’re unlikely to witness the sort of stable spending that I believe is most consistent with overall macroeconomic stability. There are all sorts of reasons for that, some stemming from political pressures, others having their source in central bankers’ limited knowledge.

I personally think we can do better. One option is to impose a monetary rule or mandate or both giving central bankers no option save that of maintaining a stable flow of spending. That would at least stop them from undermining stability by pursuing other goals. But I believe we can do better than that, by reproducing some features of the remarkably stable “free banking” systems that blossomed in several places in the past, and especially those features of free banking systems that served to automatically stabilize spending. For the time being, though, we are stuck with monetary systems to which bureaucrats hold the reins, so we must do whatever we can to make the best of a bad bargain.

In any event, whatever monetary system one prefers, it remains the case that, if that system is to work reasonably well — if it’s going to manage money better than central bankers have — it will have succeeded somehow in achieving and maintaining a stable flow of spending.

[Cross-posted from]


Last week, The Washington Post reported an “administration official” indicated the Trump White House was considering a new tax on carbon dioxide emissions. This seems incredible for a number of reasons.

It’s never a good time to champion a brand new tax, and recent science developments make it seem an especially bad one. A year ago lower atmospheric temperatures peaked with the big (and natural) El Niño. This temporarily wiped out the recent “pause” in warming that shows up in so many records. But now those temperatures are in rapid decline, with the March satellite readings back down to their pre- El Niño values. If they stay in that range for several months, the pause will be back.

If that happens, there will be no net lower atmospheric warming all the way back to 1994—almost a quarter of a century ago.

Even without another hiatus in warming, the disparity between forecast and observed warming will continue to grow.

People are now beginning to realize that there are other problems with the computer models with serious climate implications. There is a big one lurking in the bottom 50,000 feet of our atmosphere. These models all predict that the upper portion of this zone in the tropics should be warming even more than the surface. But the “tropical hot spot” simply refuses to show, as pointed out last month by University of Alabama’s John Christy, in testimony before the House Science Committee.

Observed (green) and predicted (red) warming rates from near the surface (bottom of chart) the stratosphere (above the top data point). The difference between predicted and observed changes in the high altitudes are in the range of an entire order of magnitude. The weather implications are discussed in this post. 

This is no mere arcane detail. The vertical distribution of temperature is the main cause of tropical rainfall. When the difference between the surface and upper layers is large, the surface air is more buoyant, and rain-producing clouds arc skyward. If the difference is less (as has been erroneously forecast), the opposite occurs, and rainfall is suppressed. Maintained over time, this is the difference between the tropical rainforest, the most diverse ecosystem on earth, and scrubland, savannah, or even a semidesert.

This cascades into another host of errors. Daytime desert temperatures are really hot, often exceeding 120⁰F. In such a dry environment, there’s little moisture to absorb the sun’s rays, and surface temperatures skyrocket. But in a tropical rainforest region, like Manaus, Brazil, near the equator, high temperatures in the hottest month average only around 90⁰.   

We are now beginning to realize the likely reason these models are making such humongous errors. As noted in a paper just published in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society the climate models have all been “tuned” to give the “right” answer for 20th century climate change, but doing so may have created grave errors in the ultimate forecast products.

The sum-total of all of this science news means that climate gloom-and-doom has been dramatically overforecast. It’s just not a good scientific time to bring up a carbon tax. 

I’m beginning to understand why Cato’s Michael Cannon is frequently found tearing his hair out over Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times project ostensibly devoted to “sorting out the truth in politics.” When I look at how badly they’ve botched issues involving constitutional war powers, I feel his pain.

On Friday, the fact-checking organization weighed in on the legal debate over President Trump’s April 6 bombing of a Syrian airfield, with two essays concluding it was A-OK, constitutionally. “In some cases, people saying Trump needed congressional approval have gone too far” Politifact’s Lauren Carroll pronounces. For instance, Rep. Marc Pocan’s (D-WI) claim that there’s “no legal basis” for the strikes rates a full-on, needle-in-the-red “FALSE” on P-fact’s patented “Truth-o-Meter.” Tom Kertscher of Politifact Wisconsin asserts that: “For limited military activities like the missile strike, presidents can send in forces without approval from Congress.” You see, while the president may not have the legal authority to unilaterally launch a full-scale war, he can—if he thinks it’s a good idea, and assures himself it won’t bog us down—order up acts of war that don’t rise to the level of war: a light dusting of cruise missiles—a micro-aggression, constitutionally speaking.

What’s the legal basis for that? Politifact takes nearly 2,000 words to explain it all to you, but their answers are pretty thin: 1. Maybe the commander-in-chief clause?; 2. Other presidents have gotten away with stuff like this in the past; 3. Their lawyers say it’s ok; and 4. the 1973 War Powers Resolution “creates a process to act first and ask for permission later.” I rate those claims 1. False; 2. Irrelevant; 3. Nice try; and 4. Pants on Fire. 

Per Kertscher, “Experts agree that in limited instances, such as the Syrian missile attack, a president has legal authority provided in the Constitution as commander-in-chief.” But that clause, as Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, merely makes the president “first General and admiral” of US military forces, and does not extend “to the DECLARING of war.” And “experts” who believe it empowers the president to launch sudden attacks in the absence of an imminent threat are in the minority. Over at the Lawfare blog, Fordham’s Andrew Kent sums up the legal consensus: “at the core of the question—under the original meaning of the Constitution, who has the power to decide to initiate foreign war, the president or Congress?,” he writes, “the weight of evidence now tilts so strongly toward one view that the debate should be considered over. Under the best reading of the original understanding of constitutional war powers, President Trump’s strike on Syria was patently unconstitutional.”

That the strike was “limited,” and not the opening salvo in a full-scale war doesn’t make a constitutional difference. If it did, leading war powers scholar Michael Ramsey asks, then “why did virtually everyone in the immediate post-ratification era think that limited naval warfare, as against France in the Quasi-War, required Congress’ approval?” That included the bellicose, pro-executive Hamilton, who acknowledged that for President Adams to go beyond defensive acts protecting American shipping would “fall under the idea of reprisals & requires the sanction of that Department which is to declare or make war.” Our first president even doubted his authority to take unilateral action against hostile Indian tribes, writing that “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”

As Politifact notes, modern presidential practice isn’t nearly so restrained: in the modern era, “presidents have generally initiated military activities using their constitutionally granted powers as commander in chief.” But the fact that they’ve mostly gotten away with unilateral warmaking says nothing about whether those powers were in fact “constitutionally granted.” A long train of abuses is just that–it doesn’t add up to a constitutional “common law of bombing.” As George Washington Law School’s Jonathan Turley has noted, the notion that misbehavior or negligence by the political branches alters the meaning of the constitutional text “would be viewed as wildly improper in other areas like police abuse under the Fourth Amendment or censorship under the First Amendment.” Erosion of the Constitution’s war powers provisions should be viewed the same way. At the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787, James Wilson summed up the logic behind the constitutional war powers framework: “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.” In the 21st century, “limited” military strikes violate that understanding, overturn that system, and raise the risk of “distress” beyond even the Framers’ fears

Still, Politifact argues that Trump:

“might be able to find precedent in the Obama administration’s legal justification for the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya. The White House Office of Legal Counsel determined then that it would be consistent with the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution for Obama to take military action in Libya because it served the “national interest.” Also, the operation was intended to have a limited scope and short duration, as opposed to a full-on war.”

But legal memoranda from “the President’s Law Firm” aren’t “precedent” in the sense we usually mean: rulings from an independent branch. They’re too often, as in this case, post-hoc rationalizations for what the CINC has already decided to do, Congress be damned. Even so, OLC’s Libya memo offers poor “precedent” for a punitive strike on Syria for chemical weapons use, as Obama himself seemed to recognize when contemplating such an attack in 2013. As Charlie Savage writes in Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency“Obama was proposing something unprecedented—an attack on the sovereign soil of another country for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that had already taken place rather than to prevent an imminent atrocity; a strike without United Nations permission, without a self-defense claim, and without even the multilateral NATO alliance” at the United States’ side. That’s one reason Obama decided to go to Congress instead of further “stretch[ing] the boundaries of his authority.” 

Finally, Politifact argues that “Even under the War Powers Resolution, the president can send in forces without approval from Congress,” citing its earlier, botched “fact-check” on the 2013 “red-line” affair, in which a Politifact analyst argued that “the War Powers Resolution creates a process to act first and ask for permission later.”

No it doesn’t. Read it. The WPR makes clear that the president’s unilateral powers are limited to defensive uses of force. Sec. 2(c):

The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities… are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

Moreover, the text underscores that the WPR doesn’t purport to add anything to the constitutional powers of the president. Sec. 8(d)2: 

Nothing in this joint resolution…. shall be construed as granting any authority to the President with respect to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities … which authority he would not have had in the absence of this joint resolution.

The 60-day “free pass” is, like most of our war powers problems, the product of presidential aggrandizement and congressional fecklessness–it’s not in the law.

I shudder to think that Google and Facebook have partnered with Politifact to sort out “fake news” from the genuine article. If this kind of work is any indication, they’re not up to the task. 

The United States’ immigration system favors family members over workers.  About two-thirds of all green cards issued annually are to immigrants whose qualification for being here is their relationship to American citizens or other green card holders.  This is in contrast to countries with so-called merit-based immigration systems that favor skilled immigrants, such as Australia and Canada.  Only 24 percent and 31 percent of annual immigrants to those two countries, respectively, gained permanent status through family connections.  Comparing the composition of the immigrant flow obscures important differences in immigration policy: Canada and Australia allow in many more immigrants than the United States does as a percentage of the population.

The United States allows in about a million lawful permanent residents a year, the largest number of any country, but that is a small percentage of the almost 325 million people who already live in the United States – about 0.3 percent annually.  By comparison, Australia Canada each allow in about 250,000 immigrants a year but they are much smaller countries with about 23 million and 35 million residents, respectively.  Thus, as a percentage of their populations, the annual inflow of immigrants into Canada and Australia is significantly larger than in the United States.  The annual number of immigrants to Australia is equal to 1.1 percent of the Australian population while the annual number to Canada is equal to about 0.7 percent of the Canadian population, which makes them 3.5 and 2.4 times as open to immigration as the United States, respectively (Figure 1).  If the United States were to copy Australia or Canada’s merit-based immigration policies, our government would admit about 2.3 million to 3.5 million immigrants annually.     

Figure 1

Immigrant Inflow as a Percent of Population, 2013


Sources: OECD, EuroStat, E-Stat, Citizenship and Immigration Canada

The greater number of immigrants to Australia and Canada hides an important fact about the immigrant inflow to those nations: Annual family admissions in Australia and Canada are greater than in the United States, as a percentage of the population of those countries (Figure 2).  Annual family-based immigrants to Australia and Canada are equal to 0.26 percent and 0.23 percent of their populations, respectively, compared to 0.21 percent in the United States.  This is purely the result of Australia and Canada allowing a greater number of immigrants as a percentage of their populations.      

Figure 2

Immigrant Family Inflow as a Percent of the Population, 2013

Sources: OECD, EuroStat, E-Stat, Citizenship and Immigration Canada

There are significant differences in the family flow in each country.  Canadian and Australian family-based immigrants are almost entirely the immediate family members of citizens or other immigrants while many in the United States are adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens and green card holders. 

Another difference is that the U.S. system creates family-based chains that increase future immigration in an unpredictable way relative to the Australian and Canadian system.  More distantly related relatives are less likely to be similar to the original skilled immigrant than immediate relatives.  Although the initial immigrant from a family is a skilled worker, his brother’s wife’s sibling, who could be admitted many years after the initial immigrant in the chain, is less likely to be so.  However, immigrants admitted through family categories are still a greater percentage of their destination country’s population in merit-based systems of Australia and Canada than in the United States.    

The biggest and most persistent difference between Australia and Canada and the United States is the number of workers admitted annually.  As a percentage of all annual immigrant flows, workers are 24 percent for Australia, 25 percent for Canada, and 8 percent for the United States.  Those percentages undercount workers in Australia and Canada because the OECD counts substantial regional immigration programs in both countries as “other” rather than “workers.”  As a percent of the native workforces, Australia and Canada respectively allow in 12 times and 7.5 times as many worker immigrants annually as the United States (Figure 3).  The multiples are similar when compared to the total population (Figure 3).  American complaints about immigrant workers on green cards taking American jobs seem silly in light of the fact that their annual flow is equal to about 0.04 percent of the native worker population.  There’s no excuse for admitting so few skilled immigrant workers on green cards.        

Figure 3

Immigrant Worker as a Percent of the Native Workforce and the Native Population, 2013


Sources: OECD, EuroStat, E-Stat, Citizenship and Immigration Canada

The family-based immigration system is under pressure and Congress will likely restrict it in future reform bills, even if Congress expands the worker or skilled categories.  A common argument in favor of restricting family immigration is that the U.S. allows more family-based immigrants than any country with merit-based immigration systems.  While this is true when looking at the share of family-based immigrants in the annual flow, it is untrue when looking at family-based immigrants as a percentage of the population in destination countries.  The latter matters more when evaluating the impact of immigrants on our society and economy.

This week marks the 65th anniversary of what was to become a turning point in constitutional history, President Harry S. Truman’s order seizing the nation’s steel mills during a labor dispute. Allen Pusey has an article on the episode at the ABA Journal

The case was to result in the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision later the same year in Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer, rebuking Truman for his lawless action. It was one of American history’s key wins for the successful assertion of a Constitutional rule of law that binds the executive branch as against claims of inherent emergency power.

But Truman’s audacious behavior was itself based on the adventures in Caesarism of earlier presidents going back at least to Woodrow Wilson, and especially those of his immediate predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among other wartime acts of seizure defended on national security rationales, Roosevelt had sent in armed troops on Dec. 27, 1944 to seize (on grounds of defiance of war labor advisories) the Chicago-based catalog and retail company Montgomery Ward. Known for its clothes and household items, Montgomery Ward was almost no one’s idea of a vital war industry. But its head, businessman Sewell Avery, had made himself a leading thorn in FDR’s side in opposition to the President’s New Deal policies. A famous photo showed Sewell Avery being carried bodily out on the street by military men while sitting in his executive chair. 

Truman’s lawyers pointed to the various earlier seizures to back their view that a President simply must possess such powers as chief executive and commander in chief, certainly in wartime. (The Korean War was in progress.) Pusey: 

…the government pressed the issue of constitutional authority. Before an astonished federal judge, lawyers argued that a president has unlimited power in a national crisis and the power to define that crisis. That executive authority had been ratified, they said, by decades of judicial silence on the matter.  

Judge David A. Pine’s ruling was blunt: “Apparently, according to [the government’s] theory, several repetitive, unchallenged, illegal acts sanctify those committed thereafter. I disagree.”

When the case reached the high court, it was the concurrence by Justice Robert Jackson – himself a New Dealer – that was to go echoing down as one of the Court’s great pronouncements: 

The example of such unlimited executive power that must have most impressed the forefathers was the prerogative exercised by George III, and the description of its evils in the Declaration of Independence leads me to doubt that they were creating their new Executive in his image. Continental European examples were no more appealing. And if we seek instruction from our own times, we can match it only from the executive powers in those governments we disparagingly describe as totalitarian. I cannot accept the view that this clause is a grant in bulk of all conceivable executive power… 

This is a story that could easily have had an unhappy ending. Truman apparently expected to win the showdown, and the Court itself was full of New Dealers, many of whom had shown much deference to the government. Instead, the steel seizure cases came to stand as a milestone in constitutional law, making clear that claims of emergency, even in wartime, do not justify whatever assertions of arbitrary power a President may care to make. That’s worth celebrating these many years later. 

California law generally bans the possession of a gun within a school zone. For many years, however, both retired peace officers and those with a license to carry concealed weapons were exempted from this ban. Then in 2015, a bill was proposed that would have eliminated both of these exceptions. But after extensive lobbying by interest groups aligned with federal workers and police officers, the bill was amended to remove only the exception for concealed-carry licensees.

Dr. Ulises Garcia is one such license holder, who obtained his license after receiving threats against himself from a former patient. After the change in the law, Garcia can no longer carry his weapon for protection when attending school events with his family. Garcia and a group of other plaintiffs have sued, arguing that the differing treatment afforded to retired peace officers and concealed-carry license holders violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. The federal district court rejected their claims, and they have now appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting Garcia and urging that the district court be reversed.

In rejecting Garcia’s equal-protection arguments, the district court fundamentally erred in its application of an important Supreme Court test. Legislation that treats two groups unequally must be struck down if the enacting legislature was motivated by an impermissible purpose. This includes enacting a law solely to harm a politically unpopular group at the expense of a popular and powerful one. Yet despite plenty of evidence that this is exactly what occurred here, the district judge dismissed the “improper motivation” claim in a single paragraph, writing that the court could not find evidence of bad motives in the “legislative history of the Act” and that it could not rule for Garcia without “evidence of explicit legislative intent to cause harm to civilian gun owners.”

This approach dangerously narrows the universe of evidence that judges must examine to determine legislative motivation. As we explain in our brief, the Supreme Court has consistently examined all available evidence in this search, not just the narrow record produced by legislative history. Relying only on floor statements and committee reports, as the district court did, would allow legislators to easily hide their true motivations by simply holding their tongues. Actions speak louder than words, and in this case the actions of the law itself are evidence that its true motivation could not have been good-faith policy concerns.

When the Ninth Circuit hears Garcia v. Becerra later this spring, it should apply the correct test, examine all available evidence, and strike down this unequal treatment of a politically unpopular group.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) and 11 co-sponsors recently introduced House Concurrent Resolution 40. It expresses the perfectly laudable “sense of Congress that all direct and indirect subsidies that benefit the production or export of sugar by all major sugar producing and consuming countries should be eliminated.” Things go downhill from there.

The resolution conveniently lists the trade-distorting sugar policies of Brazil, India, Thailand, the European Union, and Mexico, while neglecting to mention U.S. tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) and domestic price supports. The president is encouraged to “seek elimination of all direct and indirect subsidies benefiting the production or export of sugar” in foreign countries. Once the president has accomplished this objective and submits a report to Congress detailing how other countries have eliminated their trade-distorting measures, then he “should propose to Congress legislation to implement United States sugar policy reforms.” 

In essence this means, “Once other countries have given up all policies that favor their sugar growers, let us know and we’ll think about whether we should change ours.” Not exactly demonstrating robust U.S. leadership on trade, is it? 

The American Sugar Alliance (ASA), which represents domestic sugar growers and processors, is a strong supporter of the policy status quo. It serves their interests reasonably well. Or, at least it accomplishes the transfer of a lot of money from U.S. consumers to U.S. sugar producers. Not surprisingly, ASA likes Rep. Yoho’s approach to “reform.” ASA can express full support for this version of zero-for-zero knowing full well that it will never happen. 

An ASA statement praising the resolution laments that “Sugar producers … are also struggling with U.S. sugar prices that are currently as low as they were in the 1980s.” That statement may be technically correct because in the early 1980s sugar prices peaked much higher than today’s levels. What it doesn’t say, though, is that U.S. sugar prices have been in a long-term uptrend since 2013 and now are in the neighborhood of 30 cents per pound for raw cane sugar – well above the U.S. loan rate (support price) of 18.75 cents. 

The statement goes on to say, “Jack Pettus, ASA’s chairman, said new technology and strong business practices have made U.S. producers among the world’s most efficient. They are ready to compete on a level international playing field that is subsidy free.” If Pettus had stopped before adding the words, “that is subsidy free,” he and I would be in complete agreement. As I wrote two years ago in the paper, “Toward Free Trade in Sugar,” the U.S. industry is among the world’s most efficient. Based on an analysis published in the May 15, 2014, edition (pages 17-33) of the USDA/ERS publication, Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, U.S. sugar producers could compete effectively even without the current system of import restrictions and domestic price supports. 

The Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook article addresses relative costs of production across the world’s major sugar-producing regions. If that study doesn’t by itself persuade that the U.S. industry no longer needs protection from imports, consider this additional evidence: Canadian farmers grow sugar beets solely on the basis of earnings from the marketplace. The Canadian government provides no import restrictions or other forms of income assistance. If Canada can produce sugar without subsidies, why can’t the United States?

Instead of pussyfooting around and giving lip service to sugar policy liberalization, the United States should show genuine leadership. The best way to do so would be to end U.S. import restrictions and domestic supports unilaterally. That would not only create quite a constructive stir in the global sugar community, it also would give the United States a great deal of moral authority to request similar actions by other countries. 

Unilateral reform would serve the best interests of the United States. The economic welfare of a country always rises when trade restrictions are reduced or eliminated–gains to consumers exceed any losses to producers. The sugar program’s rigid market-control mechanisms prevent free movement of sugar prices in response to supply and demand. That rigidity causes resources to be used inefficiently and inflicts large deadweight losses on the U.S. economy.

After cleaning up its own policy mess, the United States would be in a strong position to encourage reform overseas. There’s nothing like walking the walk to build negotiating credibility. 

Instead of offering zero policy reforms and getting zero back, it’s time for the United States to demonstrate leadership by ending its sugar market distortions unilaterally. That’s the best way to encourage other countries to do the same.  

During his campaign, President Trump said that he wanted drones to patrol the border 24/7. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency, has used drones originally designed for foreign battlefields in order to conduct border surveillance, although these efforts have hardly been efficient. Federal solicitation documents reveal that DHS is looking to smaller drones with facial recognition capabilities. This ought to concern Americans who value civil liberties.

Before unpacking why plans for CBP facial recognition drones are disquieting, it’s worth outlining what kind of capabilities DHS is looking for.

The solicitation notice states the following:

This OTS [Other Transaction Solicitation] call seeks novel sUAS [small unmanned aerial system] capabilities and technologies to augment CBP and USBP [U.S. Border Patrol] mission capabilities. In particular, DHS is interested in technologies and solutions that support USBP agent activities, including enhanced overall situational awareness or support during distinct events, such as detection, tracking, interdiction, and apprehension, and search and rescue (SAR) operations. USBP agents operate day and night in diverse and extreme environments across thousands of miles of the nation’s international land borders and coastal waters. Agents must patrol remote areas, often with significantly limited mobility, visibility and communications. Additionally, agents are often required to traverse rough terrain on foot while carrying large amounts of equipment and, with limited intelligence and support, resolve encounters with unknown and potentially hostile actors. DHS seeks sUAS solutions that can augment USBP capabilities in such conditions.

Because of the “very positive/robust response” to this solicitation, DHS is closing the OTS call early, with an April 27th deadline now in place.

The solicitation lists required sensor capabilities for the drones, including, “Provides a surveillance range of 3 miles (objective),” “Able to track multiple targets persistently,” and “Identification of humans via facial recognition or other biometric at range.”

Later on, the same document notes:

the sensor technology would have facial recognition capabilities that allow it cross-reference any persons identified with relevant law enforcement databases. The data gathered via the sensors would provide information to USBP agents including the presence and extent of potential threats and support the ability of the agent to determine an appropriate response.

If you’re an American adult reading this there is a good chance that your facial image is in one of these “relevant law enforcement databases.” A 2016 report published by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology revealed: “One in two American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network.” A Government Accountability Office report from last year found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s facial recognition system has access to more than 411 million facial images, including the driver’s license photos from sixteen states.

When considering CBP’s activities we shouldn’t only be thinking about America’s land borders. Current law allows CBP officials to stop and search vehicles within 100 miles of America’s external boundary in order to prevent illegal immigration. Roughly two-thirds of Americans live in this so-called “Constitution-free” zone. Although DHS’ solicitation mentions facial recognition drones being used as part of border patrol we should be prepared for them to make appearances at interior checkpoints as well as at ports of entry.

CBP and other federal law enforcement agencies using facial recognition tools should only be able to access facial images related to wanted persons and those with a history of violent crime. Allowing police to identify law-abiding citizens going about their day or participating in a First Amendment-protected activity, such as a protest, could have a disturbing chilling effect on members of the public (as Georgetown researchers noted). Because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether law enforcement officials using facial recognition technology are conducting Fourth Amendment searches it’s up to federal agencies to implement such policies of their own accord.

Drones are not the only devices that can be outfitted with facial recognition tools. As I wrote late last year, facial recognition tools can be used with police body cameras. As police drones and body cameras become more popular we should be wary of the fact that these tools can serve as platforms for surveillance technology more intrusive than ordinary cameras.

As a candidate, Donald Trump held a relatively moderate line on drug prohibition, often arguing that issues like marijuana legalization should be left to state governments. His selection of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, however, sent an entirely different message. Sessions is a long-time champion of the federal drug war, and since taking over the Justice Department he has continued to make statements that hint at a return to a much harsher federal approach to drug prohibition.

The Washington Post ran a story this weekend detailing some of the shifts taking place at the Department of Justice, including a green light for federal prosecutors to step up prosecutions for low-level offenses and to rely on heavy mandatory minimums to leverage plea deals. 

Sessions is also expected to take a harder line on the punishment for using and distributing marijuana, a drug he has long abhorred. His crime task force will review existing marijuana policy, according to a memo he wrote prosecutors last week.

The Post story also highlights the central role of Steven H. Cook, a former police officer and federal prosecutor, within the Sessions Department of Justice. Cook has been traveling with Sessions as the Attorney General makes the case for a return to the “tough-on-crime” posture of the 80s and 90s, arguing that efforts to treat even low-level drug offenses as anything less than violent crimes are misguided and “soft.”

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, expressed his alarm to the Post:

“If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook’s appointment was a fire hose. There simply aren’t enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook’s vision for America.”

Cook, like Sessions, believes that the drug market is inherently violent and therefore the only response is to crack down:

“Drug trafficking is inherently violent. Drug traffickers are dealing in a heavy cash business. They can’t resolve disputes in court. They resolve the disputes on the street, and they resolve them through violence.”

It’s true that the black market for drugs relies on cash transactions and violence, but Cook and Sessions ignore the obvious implication. The drug market has to rely on cash transfers and violence because drugs are illegal. Drug market violence is a function of the market’s illegality, not of the drugs themselves. The same was true of alcohol distributors under prohibition. In 2017 if two alcohol distributors have a dispute, they settle it in court. If two alcohol distributors in 1929 had a dispute, they settled it on the street corner with Tommy guns and Molotov cocktails.  

Drug trafficking isn’t inherently violent; drug prohibition is.

The Trump Administration has yet to announce much in the way of concrete policy changes, but the personnel choices and the drug warrior rhetoric coming from the new administration are causes for concern looking forward.  

For more on drug policy recommendations, the Director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice Tim Lynch recently produced a chapter on the federal drug war for Cato’s Handbook for Policymakers. The chapter calls for the repeal of the federal Controlled Substances Act and the abolition of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Those with an interest in the mass incarceration problem in America may also be interested in an upcoming book forum featuring Fordham law professor John Pfaff, whose new book argues that local prosecutors are a primary and underappreciated force behind mass incarceration. The forum will take place at the Cato Institute on April 26.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll examines how Donald Trump impacts Democrats’ and Republicans’ conventional public policy opinions. The survey asked Americans to evaluate a series of questions related to statements Donald Trump has made on public policy. However, the poll only told half of the respondents that Trump had made the statement, the other half were simply asked if they agreed or disagreed with the position. Sure enough, the “Trump effect” turned Democrats’ away from single-payer health care and got Republicans somewhat less convinced of their opposition.

The survey asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement made by Donald Trump: “When it comes to health care, the government should take care of everybody and the government should pay for it.” However, only half the sample were told Trump made the statement, the other half were simply asked if they agreed or disagreed that government should pay for everyone’s healthcare.

At first, 68% of Democrats agreed that government should pay for everybody’s healthcare. However, this share drops 21 points to 47% among Democrats who were told Trump thought government should pay for everyone’s healthcare. Republicans’ support increased, but by 6 points, from 33% to 39%, among those who were told Trump made the statement. Initially, 61% of Republicans disagreed with the idea of single-payer, but opposition declined to 50% among those who learned Trump favored it.

The survey also found that Trump could make Democrats more supportive of the idea of American exceptionalism and turn Republicans against it. At first, a majority (53%) of Democrats agreed that “American exceptionalism—the idea that the USA holds a unique place in history—is insulting to people from other countries.” However, results flip among Democrats who were told that Trump made this statement. Instead, a majority (54%) come to disagree with the statement that American exceptionalism is insulting to people from other countries.  

Republicans operated in reverse. A majority (53%) of Republicans at first disagreed that the idea of American exceptionalism is insulting to people from other countries. However, a plurality (46%) came to agree with the statement when they heard that Trump believes American exceptionalism is insulting abroad.

The survey found several more instances of the “Trump effect” among partisans. Notably, majorities of both Democrats (69%) and Republicans (56%) agreed that “government officials should be forbidden from financially benefitting from their position.” However, when Trump was explicitly identified, only 23% of Republicans believed that “Donald Trump should be forbidden from financially benefiting from his position”—a shift of 33 points.

It’s important to keep in mind that Democratic and Republican partisans may have differently interpreted the statements mentioning Trump. For instance, perhaps Republicans assume Trump benefiting financially from his position means his brand may benefit, while Democrats may think it means that he would use his power to offer special preferences to his businesses. Similarly, Trump may not have dissuaded Democrats from supporting a single-payer health care system. Instead, Democrats may wish government to manage the health care system unless Trump is at the helm of the federal government. Thus, the “Trump effect” might be due to different interpretations of the statement’s meaning.

In either case, Trump remains a polarizing force in American politics. He may sour Democrats on ideas they have historically favored and warm Republicans to ideas they’ve long opposed. As Howard House, a Democrat from Jacksonville, Florida, put it: “I’m basically in disagreement with everything [Trump] says. I’ve almost closed my mind to the guy.” Conversely, Susie Steward from Fort Worth Texas explained, “[Trump] is a very intelligent man, He’s proved himself to be one hell of a manager. A builder. I think he has the business sense to do what’s best for the country.” 

This suggests that voters like Howard and Susie tend not to evaluate policy ideas based the policy’s merits, but rather on the association they make between the policy and Donald Trump. Policies like health care and tax reform that become associated with Trump may become forever tainted in the minds of some Democrats. Conversely, some Republicans may come to accept policies out of line with GOP orthodoxy dependent on their level of confidence in Donald Trump. 

There was near consensus in Washington, D.C. last week in support of the U.S. strike on Syria. Voices from the left supporting Trump’s action include Hillary Clinton, most of America’s European allies, Tom Friedman, and a large number of former Obama officials. On the right, the usual suspects like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham supported the attack, as did most Republican members of Congress, including some like Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell who opposed exactly such an action when President Obama was considering in back in 2013. Even the mainstream media appear to have decided it was time to strike Assad, at least to judge from much of the breathless “journalism” we’ve seen so far.

On first blush one might imagine that this consensus is a good thing, coming as it does during what has otherwise been an incredibly polarized first few months of Trump’s presidency. Finally, you might say, we agree on something. And all this agreement among the people we elect and pay to run U.S. foreign policy might also give you confidence that Trump did the right thing.

That confidence, sadly, would be misplaced. The truth is that the elite consensus on Syria, like Trump’s missile strike, is premature and ultimately dangerous to American national security.

The fundamental danger of elite consensus is that it undermines the marketplace of ideas. A democracy’s primary strength in foreign policy making is the ability to weigh competing policy proposals in the news media. Debate and deliberation reveal the evidence and logic behind competing claims and helps the public and political leaders assess the implications of different courses of action. This process, in theory, helps the United States avoid poor decisions.

Consensus, however, undermines this process by substituting doctrine for debate. Almost by definition, consensus requires little, if any, debate or deliberation. When was the last time elite consensus resulted from a free-flowing and vigorous debate in the United States? The natural outcome of debate is division and disagreement. Consensus emerges only when people already agree so completely on the key assumptions and value judgments involved that the conclusions are preordained and debate is unnecessary.

In the case of Syria, Republican and Democratic elites supported Trump’s missile strike not because they had an extended debate over its wisdom–in fact, there was zero debate before the surprise attack was announced–but because they all relied on the same basic doctrine that strongly endorses the value of military intervention, what Obama recently called the “Washington playbook.” Reliance on doctrine may be sufficient when the topic is how to handle routine issues, but it is clearly not the right approach when it comes to complex policy problems, about which both citizens and political leaders have incomplete information. Though beliefs are useful as general guidelines, they must be married to a careful consideration of the facts of the case at hand in order to produce sound policies. And the best way to assess the connection between beliefs and actions is to debate policy options in the marketplace of ideas.

Elite consensus can also lead to poor policy through overconfidence and precipitous action. Policies forged through debate are shaped by compromise and tempered by exposure to wide-ranging ideas and information. Consensus policies, on the other hand, require neither self-reflection nor compromise. Buoyed by widespread agreement in Washington, political leaders may feel freer to take action without subjecting their strategies to serious cross-examination. Unburdened by challenges to their views from the opposing party and confident that they are taking the consensus approach, political leaders are likely to move more quickly to take action than they would otherwise. Consider how quickly, for example, Trump acted in the wake of the chemical attack. Further, the lack of pushback from opposing elites makes it very possible that Trump’s next move will be more aggressive than it would have been if there had been more vigorous debate.

In the longer run elite consensus is dangerously self-perpetuating and can prevent course correction. Elite consensus creates powerful social forces that tend to strangle debate and stifle criticism. As research has shown, journalists for mainstream news outlets closely index their coverage to the debate in Washington. When elites are in consensus, journalists rarely seek out alternative views, thereby presenting the public with a uniform message and making it difficult to identify weaknesses in existing policies. This, in turn, props up public support for that policy and makes it riskier for political leaders to criticize the policy or the president. In the long run, these dynamics can make it more difficult for U.S. leaders to engage in serious self-appraisal when circumstances warrant. Those who doubt how difficult course correction can be need only look at the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq for evidence.

Now that the initial adrenaline rush of the crisis has passed the nation needs a more robust debate on Syria. Despite near unanimous support for the missile strike among Republican and Democratic elites, public support for the strikes is decidedly mixed. Just 51% of the public supports the strikes, only a third believe the strikes will be even somewhat likely to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, and just 20% support further military action. Elites calling on Trump to take more aggressive steps need to do more than wave horrible images and invoke the need for America to provide leadership. Indeed, given the dangers of consensus and complexities of the situation in Syria, now would be a good time for President Trump to reconsider the wisdom of the Washington playbook.

The recipe for growth and prosperity isn’t very complicated.

Adam Smith provided a very simple formula back in the 1700s.

For folks who prefer a more quantitative approach, Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to rank nations based on key indices such as rule of law, size of government, regulatory burden, trade openness, and stable money.

One of the heartening lessons from this research is that countries don’t need perfect policy. So long as there is simply “breathing room” for the private sector, growth is possible. Just look at China, for instance, where hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from destitution thanks to a modest bit of economic liberalization.

Indeed, it’s remarkable how good policy (if sustained over several decades) can generate very positive results.

That’s the main message in this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The first part of the video, narrated by Abir Doumit, reviews success stories from around the world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, Estonia, Taiwan, Ireland, South Korea, and Botswana.

Pay particular attention to the charts showing how per-capita economic output has grown over time in these jurisdictions compared to other nations. That’s the real test of what works.

The second part of the video exposes the scandalous actions of international bureaucracies, which are urging higher fiscal burdens in developing nations even though no poor nation has ever become a rich nation with bigger government. Never.

Yet bureaucracies such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are explicitly pushing for higher taxes in poor nations based on the anti-empirical notion that bigger government is a strategy for growth.

I’m not joking.

As Ms. Doumit remarks in the video, these bureaucracies never offer a shred of evidence for this bizarre hypothesis.

And what’s especially frustrating is that the big nations of the western world (i.e., the ones that control the international bureaucracies) all became rich when government was very small.

And while the bureaucracies never provide any data or evidence, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s video is chock full of substantive information. Consider, for instance, this chart showing that there was almost no redistribution spending in the western world as late as 1930.

Unfortunately, the burden of government spending in western nations has metastasized starting in the 1930s. Total outlays now consume enormous amounts of economic output and counterproductive redistribution spending is now the biggest part of national budgets.

But at least western nations became rich first and then made the mistake of adopting bad fiscal policy (fortunately offset by improvements in other areas such as trade liberalization).

The international bureaucracies are trying to convince poor nations, which already suffer from bad policy, that they can succeed by imposing additional bad fiscal policy and then magically hope that growth will materialize.

And having just spent last week observing two conferences on tax and development at the United Nations in New York City, I can assure you that this is what they really think.

Immigration has small long-run relative wage impacts on American workers by education (Figure 1). These estimates are the most popular and widely cited in the immigration debate. They were completed by George Borjas and Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri. Their findings are very close but diverge most appreciably for the wages of dropouts, even though the effect is small and positive for all native-born workers lumped together. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, 9.4 percent of native-born Americans over the age of 25 are dropouts. Thus, the wages for over 90 percent of Americans actually increased due to immigration according to more pessimistic findings in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Relative Impact of Immigration on Native Wages by Education


Sources: Borjas, p. 120; Ottaviano & Peri, Table 6.

Note: Borjas looks at 1990-2010. Ottaviano and Peri look at 1990-2006.

Borjas and Ottaviano and Peri find that the wages of immigrant workers are most affected by new immigrants (Figure 2). That’s because new immigrants have skills and education levels most similar to previous immigrants, so they compete against each other more than with natives who have very different levels of skill and education. As we point out in Figure 25 of this bulletin, immigrants still support liberalized immigration despite the negative wage effects they experience. There are at least three explanations for this.

Figure 2

Relative Impact of Immigration on Immigrant Wages by Education


Sources: Borjas, p. 120; Ottaviano & Peri, Table 6.

Note: Borjas looks at 1990-2010. Ottaviano and Peri look at 1990-2006.

First, most of these immigrants want to bring over their family members, so they support expanded immigration even if they know they will face more wage competition. People are willing to pay a lot to have their families nearby. Second, wage competition does not generally cause anti-immigration opinions. As Jens Hainmueller and Daniel J. Hopkins wrote in their wonderful literature review of the literature on opinions toward immigration: “As an explanation of mass attitudes toward immigration, the labor market competition hypothesis has repeatedly failed to find empirical support, making it something of a zombie theory.” Immigration attitudes show little evidence of being strongly correlated with personal economic circumstances. Instead, people are most concerned with immigration’s nation-wide impact on many issues.

Third, the wage gains from immigrating are so relatively gargantuan that the small single-digit decline is swamped. Research on the wage premium by Michael Clemens, Claudio E. Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett illustrate this point. A 35-year-old Mexican-born male urban worker with nine years of education can expect a monthly wage 2.53 times as large just by immigrating to the United States. In other words, his monthly wage income rises from $580.90 to $1,470.80 by immigrating. Without immigrants during the time period, as measured by Borjas and Ottaviano and Peri, his monthly wage income would have instead been $1,541.40 or $1,548.75, respectively, or 2.65 to 2.67 times as great as in Mexico. That’s a maximum difference of about $78 a month.

The Borjas and Ottaviano and Peri findings are at ends of the academic literature as most findings are even closer to zero. These differences are small for natives and, with the exception of dropouts, all point in the same direction by skill-education. Borjas and Ottaviano and Peri reach slightly different conclusions because they measure the immigrant impact on population differently. Borjas measures the immigrant impact by their fraction of the population by skill-education level while Ottaviano and Peri measure it by looking at the inflow of the share of immigrants in the labor force by skill-education level compared to the previous Census.

Regardless, Borjas and Ottaviano and Peri agree on at least two points. First, immigrants raise relative native-born American wages overall by +0.6 percent. Second, immigrant workers compete with other immigrant workers and lower their wages in every education group reported. Native-born American workers do not face much wage competition with immigrants. 

The Washington Post reports:

Del. David B. Albo … (R-Fairfax) surprised his party by announcing Wednesday that he won’t seek a 12th term [in the Virginia legislature].

Really? After 12 terms in office it’s a surprise when a politician doesn’t run for a 13th term? Or it’s “shocking” when an 80-year-old U.S. senator doesn’t seek to add to her 40 years in Congress?

Maybe it’s time to limit terms. The American Founders believed in rotation in office. They wanted lawmakers to live under the laws they passed—and wanted to draw the Congress from people who have been living under them. And polls show that contemporary Americans agree with them.

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. Yet in almost every election more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected. In fact, the most common reelection rate for House members over the past 30 years is 98 percent. Even when voters are angry, it’s hard to compete with the power of incumbency.

Americans don’t want a permanent ruling class of career politicians. But that’s what the power of incumbency and all the perks that incumbents give themselves are giving us.

We want a citizen legislature and a citizen Congress—a government of, by, and for the people.

To get that, we need term limits. We should limit members to three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. There must be more than one person in San Francisco capable of making laws. And more than one family in Detroit.

Term limits might result in the election of people who don’t want to make legislation a lifelong career.

Some say that term limits would deprive us of the skills of experienced lawmakers. Really? It’s the experienced legislators who gave us a $20 trillion national debt, and the endless war in Iraq (and Yemen and Syria), and a Veterans Affairs system that got no oversight, and massive government spying with no congressional oversight, and the Wall Street bailout.

Politicians go to Washington and they forget what it’s like to live under the laws they pass. As we’ve seen in some recent elections, they may not even keep a home in the district they represent.

When journalists and political insiders are surprised and shocked by the retirement of legislators who have served for decades, it’s time for new blood.

Political scientists say the evidence on the effect of term limits is mixed. But the evidence on the effects of the permanent congressional class is pretty clear.

For more on term limits, see the Cato Handbook for Congress, Ed Crane’s 1995 congressional testimony, or this very thoughtful article by Mark Petracca, “The Poison of Professional Politics.”

Last week, I highlighted how the DC authorities will be “among [the] first in [the] nation to require child-care workers to get college degrees.” Basic economics tells us this will restrict the supply of potential careers, raise prices, and, I fear, over time lead to a demand for more subsidies to “make child care more affordable.”

There was another possibility I did not explore. Today’s Washington Post suggests that subsidizing supply is on the agenda instead:

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has offered a $15 million proposal to address the acute shortage of licensed child-care options for the city’s infants and toddlers, an issue that has gained urgency amid a baby boom. Her 2018 budget includes competitive grants to help high-quality providers expand or open centers and would also make space available for child-care facilities in three city-owned or leased buildings.

A basic principle that policymakers should follow is “first do no harm.” DC has a general affordability and availability problem, which is screaming “restricted supply.” But now the DC authorities are having to subsidize supply in part to overcome the reductions in supply caused by their own policies. Watch for calls for more demand-side support next.

The result? More and more government control over this crucial economic, social, and familial aspect of life.

I’ve got a new piece at the Institute for Humane Studies’ Learn Liberty explaining the basics of how politicians rig district lines to reward friends and punish foes, the entrenchment of an established political class that results, and how it might be combated. Snippet:

In a classic single-party gerrymander, the party in power packs opposition voters densely into as few districts as possible, thus enabling its own voters to lead by a comfortable margin in a maximum of districts. When a legislature is under split party control, the theme is often bipartisan connivance: you protect your incumbents and we’ll protect ours. Third-party and independent voters, as is so common in our system, have no one looking out for their interests….

Geographic information systems (GIS) methods now allow members of the public using inexpensive software to analyze the full data set behind a map. In several states, that has meant members of the public could offer maps of their own or make well-informed critiques of legislators’ proposed maps. In one triumph for citizen data use, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated a map drawn by lawmakers as clearly inferior to a map that had been submitted independently by an Allentown piano teacher.

Separately, I generally agree with what Aaron Blake writes in a new Washington Post piece: with so many other solid reasons to end gerrymandering, there’s no need to over-sell two arguments frequently invoked against it, the polarization thesis and the “GOP-fixed House” thesis.

On the much-noted trend in national politics toward ideological polarization, it seems clear that gerrymandering is but one contributing factor among many. The U.S. Senate, for which districting is not an issue, has followed a path not too far from that of the House, with virtually all Senate Democrats now to the left of virtually all Senate Republicans and stepped-up party-line cohesion on voting. And states with relatively fair districting maps have experienced polarization with the rest. So, yes, reform will probably make a difference at the margins for those who would like there to be more swing or contestable seats, but don’t expect miracles.

And while gerrymandering today on net benefits Republicans (which has not always been the case), it is probable for reasons Blake explains that fair/neutral districting would still have produced a GOP-run House in 2016. An important reason is that Democratic voters are so concentrated in cities.

For some of the many other reasons the cause is worth pursuing no matter which party (if any) you identify with, check out my IHS piece or, for somewhat more detail, my chapter on the subject in the new Eighth Edition of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. I’ve previously written several pieces about my experience dealing with the problem in my own state of Maryland.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparently plans to entrust criminal justice “reform” to Steven H. Cook,

a former street cop [turned] … federal prosecutor … [who] saw nothing wrong with … life sentences for drug charges [or] … the huge growth of the prison population. 

This news is not surprising given Sessions’ views on the drug war (“good people don’t smoke marijuana”). But the Sessions/Cook perspective is still depressing:

Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.

The “silver” lining is that Sessions’s position–drug users are bad people–makes the issue as stark as possible: do we, as a society, believe in individual liberty or not? Much opposition to the drug war (e.g., campaigns against mandatory minimums) avoids that question.

Mandatory minimums are misguided, but mainly because drug trafficking and possession should not be crimes in the first place.  

The Drug War will end only when opponents focus on the fundamental issue: drug use is an individual decision, and government has no right to interfere.