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Some government actions can discourage or “chill” speech. Donald Trump’s tweet storm this week criticizing Amazon head Jeff Bezos may be seeking to chill speech.

Trump argues that the U.S. Post office is subsidizing Amazon’s deliveries. We need not decide whether Trump or Amazon is right about this matter.  The subsidy may not be the issue according to the Wall Street Journal:

Fueling Mr. Trump’s ire is not so much Amazon, the online giant that is revamping the retail industry, but the company’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, people close to the White House say. Mr. Trump sees Mr. Bezos’s hand in newspaper coverage he dislikes and is lashing out at Amazon as a proxy, these people said.

 The Journal notes that the criticism arose from specific Post stories: 

The president’s most recent flurry of tweets targeting Amazon has coincided with publication of Washington Post stories he dislikes. Over the past week, Mr. Trump has privately complained about two particular Post stories, White House aides and others said: a March 30 article that documented problems at a White House office that vets political appointees and another the following day that depicted Mr. Trump acting more independently of chief of staff John Kelly and other “moderating forces.”

So what, you might think. The president has a right to free speech too, and Bezos is not in jail. If Bezos can’t stand the heat, as the saying goes, he should stay out of the DC kitchen.

But therein lies the free speech problem. Bezos could get out of Trump’s kitchen by telling the editors and reporters at his newspaper to shut up about the President. That would be a classic case of the “chilling effect” of government threats on political speech.

Why would Bezos do that in response to mere criticism by Trump? It’s not as if Trump is an authoritative public figure whose views garner widespread respect. Trumpian attacks might even increase Bezos’ public standing.

But investors might well believe that Trump will follow his criticism with actions to harm Amazon. For example, the administration might reward a $10 billion defense contract to one of Amazon’s rivals. (To be fair, Trump apparently told one of those rivals that the decision was not his to make). The president also appoints the Postal Service governing board that sets postal rates. Any president will have many other ways to harm a critic, especially one whose successful business interacts often with government policies. For these reasons investors might think Amazon had become less valuable after Trump’s tweeting. Indeed Amazon fell 7% and lost close to $60 billion in market value in the week after the public learned that Trump wanted to “go after” the company. 

This whole sorry affair suggests two points, one libertarian, one not so much. The U.S. president stands at the top of a powerful federal government. He has wide discretion over that federal power. Some believe that a benevolent president can use such power to instill “energy to the executive” and improve the world. But a vindictive man overly sensitive to criticism can also use presidential power to harass his critics.

Libertarians focus rightly on the rule of law, but not all restraints on power are written in formal rules. Informal norms can also constrain public officials. We might expect, for example, that an elected official would not directly threaten the value of a business to silence a critic. That expectation appears rather naïve. We may be entering a time when free speech is less free both because it is more threatened and because more sacrifices will be necessary to protect it.

Jeff Bezos is not in jail, but he is lighter in the wallet, at least for now. Will his speech be chilled by this illiberal president? There are reasons for hope. Post officials deny that Bezos intervenes in their coverage of the White House. Amazon is a popular company. Attacking him may not be popular beyond Trump’s base. Bezos built Amazon. He cannot be a weak man given to giving in to bullies. Much depends on what he does next.

Speaking at the National Rx Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, John Eadie, coordinator for the National Threat Initiative, warned, “We’re now facing a very significant stimulant epidemic.” Abuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderal and Ritalin (used to treat Attention Deficit Disorders) as well as illicit stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamine, are surging. “No one is paying attention to this,” Eadie said, because the focus has been on opioids.

Law enforcement has seized 15 kilograms of stimulants for every kilogram of heroin it has seized during the last 5 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that psychostimulant overdose deaths rose 30 percent in the past year. There is evidence to suggest stimulant abuse is now outpacing opioid abuse. And the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that cocaine use and availability are at their highest level in a decade.

I wrote here about the resurgence of methamphetamine abuse once meth labs, especially in Mexico, found a substitute for Sudafed after the federal and state governments made it more difficult to obtain. And Oregon health authorities reported overdose deaths from heroin dropped in 2016 to 107 while overdose deaths from methamphetamine rose to 141.

There are lessons to be learned from this news if anyone chooses to learn them. The obvious one is that the “War on Drugs,” America’s longest war, is unwinnable. This lesson was apparently not learned when the nation experimented with alcohol prohibition in the early 20thcentury. When a market exists for willing buyers and sellers, prohibition just drives that market underground. Waging a war on drugs is like playing a game of “Whac-a-mole.”

But the other lesson relates to current opioid policy. Policymakers seem stuck in what should, by now, be an obviously false narrative: that the opioid overdose crisis is a product of doctors prescribing opioids to their patients. And even after considerable reductions in the prescribing and manufacturing of opioids for patients has shifted non-medical users over to heroin and fentanyl—now the dominant causes of opioid deaths—policymakers can’t disabuse themselves of this false narrative. They continue to double down on restricting prescriptions of opioids and make many patients suffer in the process. 

The opioid overdose crisis has always primarily been the result of non-medical users seeking opioids in the illicit market—where the dose, purity, and even the actual identity of a substance can never be known with confidence. 

The resurgence of stimulant abuse and overdose should not be viewed in isolation. It should be integrated with the opioid issue. Both should be viewed in the broader context of substance abuse in the presence of drug prohibition. Sociocultural and psychosocial factors may ultimately explain why the use and abuse of mind altering drugs is on the rise across much of the developed world

As long as policymakers continue using supply-side interventions, hoping to win an unwinnable war, the problem will continue to grow.

The watering holes in Virginia, where I live, don’t seem to show much variety when it comes to advertising happy hour specials. Nor should you blame a lack of creativity on the part of saloon owners. Entrepreneurs like Chef Geoff Tracy have plenty of clever promotions they want to run, from “half priced bottles of wine” on “Wine Down Wednesdays” to “$5 drafts” on “Turn Down For What Tuesdays.” There’s just one problem: in the Old Dominion, it’s literally illegal to talk about happy hour outside of the restaurant.

In Virginia, any happy hour advertisement placed outside of a bar – whether it be a newspaper ad or tweet – is prohibited from including the most important piece of information: the promotion or discount. Businesses are limited to using the generic terms “Happy Hour” or “Drink Special” to describe their offerings. Fun and creativity are forbidden.

Of course, across the Potomac from my home state is a drinking town with a politics problem. Yet nobody seriously suggests that telling customers that appletinis are $2 off between 4pm and 6pm has led to rampant hooliganism in the swamp (not literal hooliganism, at least). The only thing Virginia has accomplished with its crackdown on creativity is to harm consumers, who are kept in the dark on what the market has to offer and prevented from making informed choices about how to spend their time or money. 

These laws aren’t just outdated, or paternalistic, or absurd; they have a real effect on business owners who have to increase their compliance costs and forfeit foot traffic in order to comply. Chef Geoff, for example, has locations not only in Virginia but also in DC and Maryland, where colorful advertising and truthful prices are perfectly legal. So he has to change his ads in Virginia to avoid saying what is perfectly legal (and equally innocuous) elsewhere.

Now, I’ve got a toddler and infant at home, so I’ve left the happy hour game behind. That’s why it’s appropriate that two millennial lawyers – double-shudder – at the Pacific Legal Foundation, Anastasia Boden and Tommy Berry, are the ones representing Chef Geoff in his new lawsuit to strike down Virginia’s ban on truthful speech on tippling. (Full disclosure: Both of these legal eagles are former Cato legal associates, proving once again that we instill only the highest priorities in my shop.)

As a legal matter, the First Amendment doctrine here isn’t mixed or watered-down, but straight-up and neat. The Supreme Court struck down a very similar law in a 1996 case called 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island. There, Rhode Island had completely banned telling anyone the price of alcohol except for signs attached to the product itself, which could not be visible from outside the building. As the plurality opinion explained, “a State’s paternalistic assumption that the public will use truthful, nonmisleading commercial information unwisely cannot justify a decision to suppress it,” even if the product pertains to a “vice.” As a chaser, the opinion added that “it is perfectly obvious that alternative forms of regulation that would not involve any restriction on speech would be more likely to achieve the State’s goal of promoting temperance.” Both observations are equally true here.

Virginia’s alcohol laws are an outdated and ineffective relic of the Prohibition Era. The days of the inconspicuous speakeasy are long since past – save a few places where hipsters go to pay $16 a cocktail. No one should have to fear being rounded up by the booze police for daring to whisper “two-for-one Ketel One” outside her own bar. The courts should put the Beverage Code’s speech ban on the rocks and serve Virginians a First Amendment win right from the tap.

Back in 2015, candidate Donald Trump caused a stir when he publicly advocated murdering the families of terrorists. At the time, this was widely condemned for its immoral cruelty and as a violation of the laws of war. Richard D. Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at the Texas Tech University School of Law, described  “a policy of intentionally and directly targeting the families of terrorists” as “a war crime.” 

To the relief of many, the New York Times  reported  in March 2016 that Trump had “reversed course on his vow to kill the families of terrorists…saying he now recognized that such actions would violate international law.”

A disturbing report published yesterday in the Washington Post suggests President Trump may not have really changed his mind. The Post’s Greg Jaffe reports:

[W]hen the [CIA’s] head of drone operations explained that the CIA had developed special munitions to limit civilian casualties, the president seemed unimpressed. Watching a previously recorded strike in which the agency held off on firing until the target had wandered away from a house with his family inside, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?” one participant in the meeting recalled.

The article is vague about when this incident occurred, but it seems to strongly imply that Trump, as president, discouraged the CIA from taking precautions to limit civilian casualties. If the reporting is accurate, and the implication behind Trump’s question accurately portrayed, it may indicate presidential advocacy of war crimes.

Trump has directed the military to loosen the rules of engagement in its bombing of multiple countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Numerous recent  reports  point to a signficant rise in overall deaths as well as confirmed civilian casualties from U.S. bombs over the past fifteen months. According to a Washington Post article last month, in 2017, the number of “people killed in strikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition” increased by “more than 200 percent over the previous year.” Quoting the watchdog group Airwars, an Associated Press report from October cited the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” 

This should be a major concern to Americans, but as the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan rightly pointed out last month, “the subject, considered a stain on President Barack Obama’s legacy even by many of his supporters, has almost dropped off the map…the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal.”

To state the obvious, calling for the deliberate killing of civilians should be beyond the pale in American politics. Trump’s alarming question to the CIA, together with the widely reported increase in bombing and civilian casualties during his presidency, should prompt a Congressional inquiry into U.S. combat operations across several countries. Congress has an obligation to check and balance indications of possible executive branch abuse of this kind. 

Two new studies released this week find that medical marijuana laws are associated with lower levels of opioid prescribing for Medicare and Medicaid patients. The authors find that:

 “Medical cannabis policies may be one mechanism that can encourage lower prescription opioid use and serve as a harm abatement tool in the opioid crisis.”


 “Medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to lower opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a high-risk population for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose, and marijuana liberalization may serve as a component of a comprehensive package to tackle the opioid epidemic.” 

These studies add to a growing literature suggesting that marijuana legalization, not stronger prohibition, will help address the current opioid crisis.

E-Verify is an electronic eligibility for employment verification system run by the federal government. It is supposed to check the identity information of new hires against government databases to see if they are legally eligible to work. The government created E-Verify to deny employment to illegal immigrants as a means of turning off the wage magnet that attracts so many here in the first place, but it has serious and unsolvable problems. Four states have mandated E-Verify for all new hires: Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. Their experiences with a state-level E-Verify mandate have produced several lessons of how the program would likely function if Congress ever mandated it nationwide.

The first lesson is that E-Verify data is insufficiently detailed to gauge the program’s effectiveness. As I recently wrote about South Carolina, there were several quarters from 2012 through 2014 where there were more E-Verify checks than there were new hires (Table 1). Under the smooth and lawful operation of E-Verify, as its architects intended, that is not supposed to happen by the wide margins reported below except in communities where the number of illegal immigrants is grossly disproportionate to the size of the population (not the case here). Rather than running a single E-Verify check for each new hire, employers ran more checks than were required in South Carolina. There are innocent explanations for this, such as simple corrections to human error, but also potentially destructive explanations like pre-screening of applicants by employers. Knowing the number of E-Verify checks run per each individual new hire would help estimate accurate compliance rates. Regardless, the number of E-Verify checks is greater than the number of hires. This means we cannot know how many new hires are actually run through the system in states where 100 percent of them are supposed to be. That makes accurately measuring compliance rates impossible.

Table 1

E-Verify Checks as a Percent of All New Hires

Year Quarter



South Carolina


2008 2





2008 3





2008 4





2009 1





2009 2





2009 3





2009 4





2010 1





2010 2





2010 3





2010 4





2011 1





2011 2





2011 3





2011 4





2012 1





2012 2





2012 3





2012 4





2013 1





2013 2





2013 3





2013 4





2014 1





2014 2





2014 3





2014 4





2015 1





2015 2





2015 3





2015 4





2016 1





2016 2





2016 3





2016 4





2017 1





2017 2





Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Survey

Note: NM means “no E-Verify mandate.”

The second lesson is that compliance rates are likely very low. Figure 1 shows the E-Verify compliance rates as the percent of new hires run through E-Verify in each quarter in states where the program is mandated. As mentioned before, these compliance rates include every E-Verify check by participating employers in these states and many are for the same new hire, so they all look higher than they are on the ground. According to the rosy data presented above, that is likely impossible as only about 61 percent of all new hires who were supposed to be run through E-Verify in these states in the second quarter of 2017 were actually checked (Figure 1). That is a low level of compliance. 

Figure 1

E-Verify Compliance Rates in States with Mandated E-Verify


Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Survey

The third lesson is that laws do not enforce themselves. It is easy for any level of government to pass a law declaring that E-Verify is now mandatory for all new hires. Enforcing that labor market regulation is a different challenge that requires workplace visits, inspections, and audits. Other than South Carolina, which has a remote audit program run by the state Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, there is no enforcement of E-Verify by states that mandate its use for all new hires. To make matters worse, South Carolina’s audits might make the E-Verify data less reliable as employers check the same employees multiple times just to make sure they pass remote audits. Worst of all, we do not even know how often E-Verify succeeds in denying employment to illegal immigrants. South Carolina’s audits only measure if E-Verify is used, not whether it succeeds in its goal.

E-Verify is an expensive and intrusive labor market regulation that mostly affects American citizens, as every person needs to be run through it in order for it to have a hope of working. Members of Congress introduce bills to mandate it nationwide nearly every session. It is time that policymakers in Washington, DC look at the states where E-Verify is mandatory to judge how it works in reality rather than relying on Pollyanish odes about its intended effects. The low E-Verify compliance rates in states where the program is mandated point to serious problems that its cheerleaders must directly address.

Yesterday I was on a panel at Heritage looking at a Swiss-style debt brake and whether it was appropriate for the US.

US federal debt is now at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1950. Even prior to the recent tax cuts and budget-cap busting omnibus spending deal, debt was forecast to rise to 150 percent of GDP over the next three decades, primarily due to an aging population interacting with existing entitlement promises. Next week the Congressional Budget Office will publish its economic and fiscal outlook, which will show much higher deficits over the coming years following recent policy changes, and hence an even worse baseline of debt to ride into this fiscal headwind. Analysts expect the annual deficit could rise to around 5.3 percent of GDP in the next year or so.

Why does this matter from an economic perspective?

There are good economic reasons why we should desire a lower long-term debt-to-GDP ratio. For starters, a lower debt burden is insurance against the kind of “earthquake” debt crisis that John Cochrane and his Hoover Institution colleagues wrote about in the Washington Post last week. There are also obviously significant intergenerational consequences for taxpayers stemming from continually kicking the can down the road with ever-rising accumulated debt, with rising debt interest payments taking up a much higher proportion of government spending.

But a new Dallas Fed Economic Letter builds on previous research suggesting potentially the most damaging consequence: a rising debt trajectory seems to be associated with slower economic growth.

Back in the early part of this decade there was a huge debate about this. Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart published a paper suggesting that growth across countries tended to slow substantially when government debt exceeded 90 percent of GDP. This “threshold effect” was taken by some commentators and politicians as gospel, but economists were more skeptical of thinking 90 percent represented a magical threshold beyond which disaster would strike. Then mistakes were found in the Reinhart-Rogoff work, and that hook was used to discredit the idea that there was a negative transmission mechanism between high debt and low growth at all.

This was an overreaction. Reinhart and Rogoff were not the only ones to find such an association. In fact, there was a lot of evidence out there that high debts were associated with slower growth. Stephen Cecchetti, M. S. Mohanty, and Fabrizio Zampolli identified a debt-to-GDP threshold of about 85 percent as a point beyond which growth tends to slow. Even Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, who replicated Reinhart and Rogoff’s work correcting for the errors, found that, on average, growth was 1 percentage point per year lower when government debt exceeded 90 percent of GDP than when debt levels were between 60 and 90 percent.

That’s what makes the new Dallas Fed note so interesting. They acknowledge, in line with basic intuition, that “the debt–growth relationship is complex, varying across countries and affected by global factors.” They also highlight the problem of disentangling the two-way causality between the two, and the possibility of discontinuities. Nevertheless, looking at a panel of advanced and emerging economies they conclude:

persistent accumulation of public debt over long periods is associated with a lower level of economic activity. Moreover, the evidence suggests that debt trajectory can have more important consequences for economic growth than the level of debt to gross domestic product (GDP).

Although there is no universally applicable threshold beyond which growth slows, countries with “rising debt-to-GDP ratios exceeding 60 percent tend to have lower real output growth rates.” What’s more, persistent accumulations of debt are associated with worse long-run growth outcomes:

These estimates are all negative and in the range of -5.7 to -9.4 percent, suggesting that a persistent accumulation in the debt-to-GDP ratio at an annual pace of 3 percent is eventually associated with annual GDP growth outcomes that are 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points lower on average.

Though the authors are careful to point out that this does not prove causality, the study does present evidence that if there is a transmission mechanism from high debt to low growth, the key to overcoming it is credible commitments and action to ensure debt increases are temporary phenomena. For the US federal government, rising debt looks a permanent reality right now as far as the eye can see.

For more on how fiscal rules could help play a part in changing this, read here.

And here’s the full discussion at Heritage from yesterday.

In the May/June 1983 issue of Regulation, economist Bruce Yandle outlined a theory of regulation he referred to as “bootleggers and Baptists.” Using the example of laws forcing bars to close on Sundays, Yandle explains how well-intentioned Baptists worried about the “dangers” of alcohol and self-interested bootleggers hoping to profit when bars are closed both support the law for fundamentally different reasons.

While public discourse over regulation frequently identifies the “Baptists,” the role of “bootleggers” is often ignored. For example, a recent New York Times article discussing the Gun Control Act of 1968 overlooks the influence of U.S. gun manufacturers. The article describes the Act as a response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, which motivated President Lyndon Johnson to call for gun control legislation.

While the assassinations did propel the gun control movement, the Gun Control Act was also a chapter in a long running battle between U.S. gun manufacturers and importers of foreign firearms. In the fall 2015 issue of Regulation, Joseph Michael Newhard recounts the history of gun control legislation and contends that U.S. manufacturers have frequently benefitted from gun control legislation that reduces their competition.

The 1968 Gun Control Act was no different. Limits were imposed on foreign imports and manufacturers, importers, and dealers were forced to be licensed, reducing the ability of individuals to sell firearms. Instead of a decline in firearms sales in the United States, the law simply transferred profits originally going to importers to manufacturers. As the Times reported on May 4, 1969, the Act,

which barred the importation of cheap, concealable-type handguns, is being defeated by the domestic manufacture of the guns or by the importation of foreign parts for assembly in this country….A domestic industry is thus blossoming to meet the brisk demand and will soon be turning out about 500,000 cheap pistols a year, compared to roughly 75,000 made here before the import restriction.

The recent Times article, however, ignores the role of gun manufacturers and the benefits the Act conferred to them. The article focuses on provisions that were ultimately left out of the act—namely, licensing and registration requirements—because of political pressure and lobbying by the NRA. The fact that provisions that directly benefitted gun manufacturers survived political opposition and remained in the final bill is a testament to the power of bootleggers and Baptists.

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.

The Surgeon General issued an “Advisory on Naloxone and Opioid Overdose” today, drawing attention to the effectiveness of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. The drug, approved for use since 1971, is an effective remedy that can be safely administered by lay personnel who receive basic instructions. The Advisory cites research demonstrating that community-based overdose education and naloxone distribution reduces overdose deaths, and points out that first responders in most states and communities are now equipped with the drug.

Because naloxone is available only by prescription, most states have developed workarounds to make it more available to patients and, in some cases, third parties who have proximity to medical and non-medical opioid users. This way, witnesses to an overdose can be capable of rescuing the victim. This usually involves a state authorizing pharmacists to prescribe the drug or, in many cases, the state health director, acting as the state’s physician, issuing a “standing order” to pharmacists to distribute it.

The Advisory lists a number of conditions and situations that might place a person at risk of opioid overdose and encourages such people, or people who know them, to avail themselves of naloxone. It supports efforts at wider distribution at the community level.

Unfortunately, because of the stigma that has developed in association with opioid use, many opioid patients are reluctant to speak to the pharmacist and request a naloxone prescription. In some states, the naloxone will not be prescribed to third parties who know an opioid user. Also, numerous instances have been reported where pharmacists are reluctant to prescribe the antidote, believing they are “enabling” a drug abuser.

Recognizing this obstacle to naloxone distribution, Australia made it available over-the-counter in 2016, making it as easy to purchase as cold remedies or antacids. This way medical and nonmedical opioid users can discreetly make a purchase and check out at the cash register without having to answer any questions or face scrutiny from a pharmacist. The drug has been over-the-counter in Italy for over 20 years.

Based upon an August 2016 blog post, the Food and Drug Administration thinks it is reasonable to consider reclassifying naloxone as over-the-counter, and the FDA Deputy Director stated in the post that the agency would be willing to assist manufacturers in submitting applications for reclassification. But FDA regulations allow the commissioner to order a rescheduling review and allow petitions for OTC rescheduling from “any interested person”—not just drug manufacturers.

I’ve argued here that the FDA Commissioner should order an expedited reclassification review, and, if the Commissioner is unwilling to do so, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services—or even Congress—can see that it occurs. I’ve also contended that state legislatures—or even governors—as interested parties, can formally request an FDA review.

The Surgeon General’s April 5th Advisory singing the praises of naloxone and calling for its wider distribution in communities across the nation makes it obvious that the Surgeon General is an interested party.  Because he thinks naloxone should be used more to reduce overdose deaths, the Surgeon General should formally request that the FDA Commissioner order an expedited review of naloxone in hopes that it will be available over-the-counter as quickly as possible.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has made its decision. On June 18 of this year John Williams, currently serving as the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, will succeed William Dudley as New York Fed President. This decision will have many ramifications in the years to come, but several key points immediately stand out.

It means that Jerome Powell, the newly minted chair of the Fed, who is a lawyer not an economist, will have someone steeped in monetary policy by his side on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) — the NY Fed President serves as the vice chair of the FOMC and is a permanent voter.

Williams has spent nearly his entire career within the Federal Reserve System. A student of John Taylor, Williams earned his PhD in 1994 at Stanford and immediately went to work at the Board of Governors. He stayed at the Board until 2002 when he moved to the San Francisco Fed. In 2011, Williams succeeded Janet Yellen as president there, having served as her research director.

The move to NY continues Williams’ ascension through the ranks of the Fed. While the NY Fed is one of a dozen regional banks, it is far and away the most important.

As president of the San Francisco Fed, Williams was already a voter on this year’s FOMC, but leading the NY Fed gives him a vote every year — the San Francisco Fed President votes only once every three years.

With the trading desk housed at the NY Fed, it is responsible for executing the monetary policy decisions of the FOMC. The NY Fed’s special placement makes its president one of the top three officials within the Federal Reserve System — along with the Vice Chair of the Board and, of course, the Fed Chair.

While Williams has never worked directly in financial markets, that fact should not be seen as a criticism. His career in monetary policy complements Chair Powell’s business background, which is important as long as the Vice Chair of the Board remains a vacant seat. Furthermore, and perhaps because he has not worked directly in markets, Williams understands that monetary policy should not overreact to short term data, particularly drops in financial markets. In his most recent speech, he said that there is no reason to expect a “knee-jerk reaction” from the Fed in response to recent events.

Williams’ specific monetary policy expertise is important in additional ways.

For nearly twenty years Williams has been discussing ways to measure the natural rate of interest (r*), which is a key input into many monetary policy rules, including the Taylor Rule. Though r* had been declining shortly before the Great Recession, it fell sharply during the financial crisis and has not recovered. This line of research has led Williams to the conclusion that the Fed is quite likely to be at the Zero Lower Bound again during future downturns. Because of this, Williams has become one of the most prominent advocates inside the Fed for finding an alternative target for conducting monetary policy. His preferred alternative to the Fed’s current inflation rate target is price-level targeting.

Targeting the inflation rate means that policy errors are ignored going forward. When the Fed undershoots its inflation rate, as it has almost without exception since adopting it in 2012, it doesn’t take corrective action to atone for those errors. Price level targeting, on the other hand, does correct for these mistakes by returning the price level to its overall trend. Level targeting offers a stability that inflation rate targeting cannot.

While Williams should be commended for his willingness to rethink the central bank’s inflation target from within the Fed, a price level target is not the answer.

Level targeting is certainly preferable to targeting the growth rate of a nominal variable, like the inflation rate, because level targeting obliges a central bank to make up for past policy errors. But price level targeting can sometimes contribute to the business cycle.

For example, when there is a negative real shock to the economy, like a decline in the output of oil, the price level will naturally tend to rise. Yet Fed tightening under these circumstances would only cause output to fall still further. (Williams, to his credit, admitted that adverse supply shocks would pose a challenge to a price level targeting central bank when I asked him about this at a recent Shadow Open Market Committee event).

A central bank that keeps the price level stable despite rapid productivity growth may, on the other hand, overheat the economy. Partly for these reasons, there is little reason to believe that price level targeting would have improved the Fed’s performance during the financial crisis and Great Recession, even if it might have improved upon the Fed’s actual policies at other times.

That said, John Williams is a monetary policy expert steeped in decades of research that shows evolution in his thinking — which, over the years, has earned him a reputation as a data-driven Fed official. As more economists call for a new target, we can hope he joins them in seeing the benefits of a nominal GDP level target over a price level target.

And critically important, at the NY Fed he will see the new operating framework up close and speak to those in charge of executing it on a daily basis. Janet Yellen called the new operating framework, particularly the interest rate paid on banks’ reserves, the key tool for monetary policy. Powell at his first press conference said there was essentially no decision made or forthcoming on whether the Fed will return to the corridor system used before the crisis.

Let us hope that Williams uses his expertise to critically examine the new operating framework during his leadership of the NY Fed — particularly the role this operating system may be playing in the Fed’s inability to reach its inflation target for years.

There are of course still many open questions regarding the future conduct of monetary policy, including how much the balance sheet will shrink, and whether the Fed will ever return to its pre-crisis operating framework based upon a market-determined federal funds rate. The New York Fed will play a lead role in deciding how such questions will be answered. Williams’ openness to new ideas and in engaging his colleagues, scholars, and the public on monetary policy issues is a good sign for those interested in the debate about how the Fed should conduct monetary policy.

[Cross-posted from]

Conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation are circulating a proposal that builds on legislation by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to overhaul ObamaCare. Even though I don’t know whether Graham and Cassidy have endorsed these updates, I will go ahead and call this proposal Graham-Cassidy 2.0. The proposal seems ill-advised, particularly since there is an alternative that is not only far superior in terms of policy, but also an easier political lift that would deliver more political benefit.

The key to evaluating any proposal to overhaul ObamaCare is to understand the law’s centerpiece is its pre-existing conditions provisions. Those provisions are actually a bundle of regulations, including a requirement that insurers offer coverage to all comers, restrictions on underwriting on the basis of age, an outright prohibition on underwriting on the basis of health, and a requirement that insurers treat different market segments as being part of a single risk pool. ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions have the unintended and harmful effect of penalizing high-quality coverage and rewarding low-quality coverage. ObamaCare contains other harmful regulations, but its preexisting-conditions provisions are by far the worst. Unless a proposal would repeal or completely free consumers from ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions, it is simply nibbling around the edges.

From what I have seen, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 nibbles around the edges.

To its credit, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would zero-out funding for and repeal the entitlements to both ObamaCare’s premium-assistance tax credits (read: Exchange subsidies) and benefits under the Medicaid expansion. Unfortunately, it would not repeal that spending. Instead, it would take that money and send it to states in the form of block grants. The aggregate spending level for those block grants would grow more slowly over time than Exchange subsidies and federal Medicaid-expansion grants would under current law.

Limiting the growth of those spending streams seems like a better idea than letting them grow without limit, as current law allows. However, there is more downside than upside here.

First, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would transform a purely federal spending stream into a intergovernmental transfer. At present, Exchange subsidies are payments the federal government makes to private insurance companies. Under Graham-Cassidy 2.0 (and 1.0), the feds would send those funds to states, which would use them to subsidize health insurance in various ways. Roping in a second layer of government diffuses responsibility and reduces accountability, regardless of whether the feds send those funds to states in the form of a block grant. Voters who don’t like how those funds are being spent would have difficulty knowing which level of government to blame, and whichever level of government is actually responsible could avoid accountability by blaming the other. Intergovernmental transfers are so inherently corrupting, there should be a constitutional amendment prohibiting them. And yet Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would substitute an intergovernmental transfer for spending with clearer lines of accountability.

Second, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 also diffuses accountability for ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions. Those provisions would continue to operate (with slight modifications). As a result, they would continue to destabilize the individual market, punish high-quality coverage, and reward low-quality coverage. The purpose of the Exchange subsidies is to mitigate that instability. Today, it is clear that Congress is responsible for any harm those provisions inflict, and the success or failure of the Exchange subsidies to mitigate those harms. Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would give that money to states and task them with mitigating those harms. When states fail to do so, as at least some states inevitably will, whom should voters blame? Congress, which started the fire? Or states, to whom Congress handed the fire extinguisher?

Third, while Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would eliminate two federal entitlements, eliminating entitlements is desirable only to the extent it limits government control over economic resources—in this case, spending. And while Graham-Cassidy 2.0 proposes to hold the growth of this repurposed ObamaCare spending below what it would be under current law, there is reason to doubt such a spending limitation would hold.

When examining the merits of any policy proposal, one must also consider the political dynamics the proposal would unleash. Generally speaking, states are a more politically powerful and sympathetic constituency than the current recipients of Exchange subsidies (private insurance companies). States have been able to use that political clout to get Congress to disregard the spending limits it imposed on SCHIP, for example, when so-called emergencies led states to blow through their initial allotments. Moreover, since Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would preserve ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions, it would come with its own built-in emergencies. As sure as the sun rises in the East, states will come to Congress and claim their block-grant allocations were insufficient to mitigate the resulting harms. Congress would be unlikely to say no—members rely on state officials for political support, after all—which means the spending restraints in Graham-Cassidy 2.0 are less than guaranteed.

Fourth, also pushing the direction of bigger government, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would expand the constituency for ObamaCare spending. At present, the money the federal government spends on ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion does not enjoy the support of the 19 states that have not implemented the expansion. The block grants in Graham-Cassidy 2.0, by contrast, would go to all states. As a result, non-expansion states like Texas would go from not caring about whether that federal spending continues to insisting that it does. At the same time, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would expand the constituency of voters who want to preserve that spending. At present, able-bodied, childless adults in non-expansion states receive no benefit from ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion or its Exchange subsidies. Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would allow (and in some cases require) states to provide subsidies to such adults below the poverty level, thereby creating another constituency that will reliably vote to expand those subsidies.

Fifth, a provision of Graham-Cassidy 2.0 that supporters consider a selling point would expand the constituency for more spending yet again. The proposal would require all states to allow all able-bodied, non-elderly Medicaid enrollees to use their Medicaid subsidy to purchase private insurance. Since greater choice would make Medicaid enrollment more valuable, and since roughly one third of people who are eligible for Medicaid are not enrolled, this would perversely lead to a large “woodwork effect,” where people who were previously eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled begin to enroll in the program. When Medicaid enrollment increases, so will Medicaid spending, and so will the population of voters who are willing to vote for higher Medicaid spending and the higher taxes required to finance it.

Since Graham-Cassidy 2.0 would preserve ObamaCare’s preexisting-conditions provisions, it is hard to see what would justify taking these one or two uncertain steps forward and multiple steps backward.

This is particularly true since there is a much better alternative on the table: strongly encouraging the Trump administration to allow insurers to offer short-term health insurance plans with renewal guarantees that protect enrollees from having their premiums increase because they got sick. Doing so would allow consumers to avoid all of ObamaCare’s unwanted regulatory costs, particularly those imposed by its preexisting-conditions provisions. The Trump administration can create this “freedom option” by administrative rulemaking—comments on the administrations proposed rule are due April 23—which is a much easier political lift than garnering 217 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate. Expanding short-term plans would also create salutary political dynamics that would force Democrats begin negotiating a permanent overhaul of ObamaCare.

As of today, Graham-Cassidy 2.0 just can’t compete with that cost-benefit ratio. Every ounce of energy spent on it, rather than on expanding short-term plans, is a waste.

Despite over a century of Supreme Court decisions holding that a state cannot force wholly out-of-state entities to collect taxes for them, South Dakota wants to do just that. In 2017, South Dakota passed Senate Bill 106, which attempts to force out-of-state sellers that ship to South Dakota residents to collect and remit South Dakota’s sales tax. The law is in direct contravention to the 1992 case of Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, which held that states could not compel any entity to collect taxes unless the entity has a physical presence within the state. South Dakota sued Wayfair, a popular home goods vendor, among other retailers, in an attempt to enforce their law and overturn Quill in the process.

South Dakota’s law is at odds with the Constitution. Quill’s physical-presence requirement stemmed from decades of developments in tax law that struck an important balance between due process and the Commerce Clause of our Constitution. Due process requires some definite link—some minimum contacts—between the state and any person, property, or transaction that a state seeks to tax or regulate. Wayfair does not own property in South Dakota, elects no representatives in South Dakota, and was afforded no protection by South Dakota’s police. South Dakota’s only justification for binding a foreign entity to its law is that some of Wayfair’s many customers happen to live there. To allow South Dakota to compel Wayfair’s collection of its state taxes raises serious concerns of taxation without representation. If states can directly compel people who live outside state boundaries to adhere to state standards—standards the people had no chance to influence—the concept of statehood itself is undermined.

Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Wayfair, because, as the Supreme Court once said, it is a “principle of universal application, recognized in all civilized states, that the statutes of one state have…no force or effect in another.” A federal constitutional structure inevitably poses difficulties like South Dakota is experiencing, especially where trade is flowing freely between states. South Dakota may have to think of other ways to raise revenue, but that is not a justification for undermining our constitutional structure. Governments around the world are prone to complain about the difficulties of collecting taxes, but our Constitution was not written to bend to the states’ desires to raise revenue.

As Washington Post readers know, there has been extensive corruption in the District of Columbia government for many years.

But D.C. is a city of 700,000 people within a metro area of 6.1 million. So I’ve been surprised about the relative dearth of news articles on corruption in the suburbs, particularly the Virginia suburbs.

Is that because there is: a) less corruption in VA, b) less media interest in covering it, or c) fewer auditors in VA digging for it?

Where there is government spending, there is corruption. There is a lot of federal, state, and local government spending in VA, so I’ve wondered whether “c” might be the right answer.

Well, how about that—the Post just reported on major corruption in VDOT:

During a snowstorm two years ago, Virginia Department of Transportation official Anthony Willie decided he should book a hotel room in Northern Virginia for the night. After all, he was in charge of snowplowing for the Burke area of Fairfax County.

While he was there, he wanted to have some fun. So he tried to get contractors and a co-worker to send women up to his room, according to court documents.

… Willie, of Culpeper, was sentenced this year to seven years in prison, having pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. He is among seven people convicted in a sweeping investigation.

Willie and his deputy, Kenneth Adams of Fairfax, demanded bribes from snowplow drivers in exchange for work. For six years they picked up payoffs at Outback Steakhouse and McDonald’s restaurants in the Washington suburbs. Along the way they increased their demands: Contractors said they were threatened when they balked at paying more.

… All seven defendants said in court that the corruption at the Virginia Department of Transportation is endemic to the culture and more extensive than the scheme that put them behind bars.

“It is happening now, it will happen in the future,” contractor John Williamson said before being sentenced to three months in jail. “It is rampant, and it is part of the culture of the agency.”

Prosecutor Samantha Bateman acknowledged in court that “this is a more pervasive problem in the Virginia Department of Transportation than is known.”

…Their crimes came to light only because another snowplow contractor complained to FBI agents looking into yet more alleged corruption at the agency involving falsified vehicle registrations. It is unclear where that investigation stands, but when FBI agents came to search Rolando Pineda Moran’s home, he told them they were missing the big picture.

“You’re looking at the trees. There’s a big forest out there,” Moran told them,

Adams also was selling cocaine — including to his boss, who was videotaped snorting the drug in his office, according to court documents. In addition to a public corruption charge, Adams pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

Both agency officials took between $200,000 and $300,000 in bribes, court documents said.

Isn’t that interesting? Corruption is alleged to be “rampant” and “endemic” in a major Virginia government agency, and the corruption has been apparently going on for years.

These crimes came to light because of a tip to federal investigators, who were investigating another different crime in VDOT.

Where were state auditors and investigators? And why has VDOT corruption festered so long?

Virginia has an Office of State Inspector General, which is supposed to investigate fraud, waste, and corruption in state agencies and contractors. Was this office aware of the alleged VDOT corruption? The Office does not post its investigative reports, and the last VDOT performance review in 2015 does not mention the problems.

Also, why is the FBI so involved in state and local public corruption? Look at this long list of public corruption investigations. Are the Feds doing work that state governments should be doing? Is federal help making the states helpless in policing themselves?

David C. Henrickson will be at Cato on Monday, April 16, at 11am to discuss his new book, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition in which he contends that American foreign policy is well over-due for “renovation.”

He argues that that

  • The United States does not and cannot function at the legitimate umpire of the international system.
  • Its ostensibly liberal ends have concealed highly illiberal means.
  • Its doctrine holding the world’s states to one standard has been destabilizing.
  • Its military policy has been overly aggressive.

He further contends that the people who loudly praise “the liberal world order” have lost touch with critical elements of the liberal tradition,” and he seeks to revive that tradition in what he calls “a new internationalism” emphasizing “restraint rather than braggadocio” and the acceptance by the United States of “its role as a nation among nations” rather than arrogantly “extolling its exceptional virtue and superior wisdom.”

And that’s all on just two pages.

He also suggests, quite unfashionably, that foreign policy elites might consider containing their congenital hysteria over Russian assertiveness in its area and over China’s (rather screwball) islands in the seas to its south.

Hendrickson is the author of eight books and is a professor of political science at Colorado College where he has enjoyed the view since 1983.

Commenting will be Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of even more books than Hendrickson. I will be moderating. And there’s a free lunch afterward.

Click here to register or to learn more.

Last August, the Federal Register announced a period of public commentary on information germane to a new set of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the 2022-2025 period. The extant standard, of roughly 50 miles per gallon (MPG) for passenger cars and other light vehicles, was put in place in January 2017, right at the end of the Obama Administration.

It is not surprising that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the Obama standards are not to stand; we hope our extensive public comments submitted on September 27 exerted some influence on this decision.

We noted:

There is a paradigm-shift occurring in global warming that is highly relevant… It began with the revelation of remarkable and increasing discrepancies between the climate models…in the most recent report of the U.N’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and observations in the bulk atmosphere over vast swaths of the planet.

Figure 1 (below) shows this discrepancy.

Figure 1. Average of the IPCC computer model projections for the tropical mid-troposphere versus three standard sets of observations: weather balloons, temperature sensed from satellites, and “reanalysis” data used to initialize the daily weather map. The growing discrepancy is obvious, even with the 2016 El Nino warm spike at the end.

Figure 2 (above) shows the problem in the vertical tropics, where as much as seven times as much warming has been predicted at high altitude since the satellites became operational in 1979.

Figure 2 has enormous consequences for weather. It is the vertical distribution of temperature that determines how much moisture is wafted sky ward in the fetid tropics. Much of the extratropical temperate zone depends upon this juice.

It is noteworthy that models in general predict the greatest amounts of future warming, while observationally-based studies, often about interglacial-glacial transitions, or differences between geological eras, tend to come up with less warming. Given data or a model, most folks will pick the former.

We detail our reasons for re-examining the 2022-25 CAFÉ standards here. Have a look and we think you’ll agree that Administrator Pruitt has pretty sound science behind the need to revisit standards that were generated absent some of this very important data.

The Economic Development Administration (EDA) is a Department of Commerce agency that subsidizes local business activities. The EDA cost taxpayers $287 million in 2017.

The EDA funds activities that should be funded by local governments and the private sector. In the photo below, a federal official and a congressman are handing a check to local representatives to pay for road and water facilities at a new Home Depot store.

President Trump proposed abolishing the EDA in his recent federal budget. That would be a good reform, and a new study at discusses the EDA’s history and reasons to eliminate it.

Republican Hal Rogers of Kentucky worries that starvation may increase in his district without the program. That claim defies logic, but congressional Republicans recently sided with Rogers, and  increased EDA spending by $25 million.

A long time ago, legendary anti-pork Democrat Senator William Proxmire targeted the EDA with his “Golden Fleece Awards.” He pointed to wasteful EDA spending such as this “cursed pyramid” in Indiana.

Proxmire argued that the EDA “deserves to die,” and he was right.

Trump will have to try again next year. If the Republicans can’t cut the EDA, they can’t cut anything.

My analysis, with Tad DeHaven, of the EDA is here.

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1978, I had no intention of becoming an economist. Instead, I was studying marine biology at Duke University’s Marine Lab at Pivers Island, on the beautiful North Carolina Coast. There, when the wind was up, my classmate Alan Kahana and I enjoyed going out on his Hobie 16, with Alan manning the tiller and myself hiked-out on the trapeze. We weren’t, truth be told, especially prudent sailors. On the contrary: we were so inclined to push things to the limit that one day we took the Hobie out just as a gale was getting up, and ended up…well, that’s a long, sad story. Suffice to say that it doesn’t take much to capsize a Hobie, and that on that day we capsized Alan’s boat once and for all.

What, you are no doubt wondering, has any of this to do with Interest on Excess Reserves? I’m getting there. You see, although it doesn’t take much to capsize a Hobie — a little over-trimming of the sail will suffice — once one capsizes, it’s likely to start to turn turtle as its mast fills with water. And as that’s happening, it may be all that two reasonably trim lads can do — by pulling for dear life on a righting line attached to the boat’s mast, whilst leaning backwards on its uppermost hull — to lever the thing back upright. The more the mast fills, the harder it gets. And the same sort of thing goes for letting a central bank slip into, and then trying to wrest it out of, a floor system of monetary control: the more liquidity the banking system takes in while that system’s in place, the more effort it takes to pull out of it.

As faithful readers know, I’ve long insisted that the modest interest rates the Fed began paying on excess reserves in October 2008 were enough to encourage bankers, who long made do with only the slimmest of excess reserve cushions, to hoard all the reserves they could lay their hands on. That modest little bit of Fed sail-trimming was enough to overturn  the Fed’s traditional monetary control system. The Fed had long relied on a sort of asymmetrical “corridor” system, with a target fed funds rate set somewhere between zero and the Fed’s discount rate, and the effective federal funds rate kept near that target by means of small-scale open market operations. Now it had flipped-over to a “floor” system, with changes in the Fed-administered IOER rate serving as its chief instrument of monetary control.

Some economists, to be sure, refuse to believe that the modest IOER rates the Fed paid in the early stages of the crisis could account for the switch in question, or for banks’ subsequent tendency to hoard reserves. Paul Krugman even accused those who thought so of failing a “reality test,” by overlooking how, in the U.S. in the 1930s and in Japan more recently, banks hoarded non-interest-bearing reserves. But Professor Krugman himself might be said to have failed a “logic test,” calling for an understanding of the difference between a necessary and a sufficient cause. Then there’s the pesky fact that Ben Bernanke and other Fed officials secured permission to pay interest on bank reserves for the express purpose of getting banks to hoard them. Had they done so for no reason? Had Ben Bernanke himself forgotten about the 1930s? A page from his 2014 textbook is illuminating (HT: Alex Schibuola):

But allowing that a modest above-zero return on bank reserves was indeed all it took to establish a floor system, and to get banks to stock-up on excess reserves, it doesn’t follow that restoring the IOER rate to zero would have the opposite effects. The reason has to do with the immense growth in the total supply of reserve balances that has since taken place. That growth matters because, under a floor system, the greater the nominal stock of bank reserves, the lower the IOER rate must be to reduce the quantity of excess reserves demanded to zero. The accumulation of liquidity in a “floored” monetary control system thus acts like the accumulation of water in the mast of a capsized Hobie Cat, making it much harder to revert from a floor to a corridor system than it was to switch to the floor system in the first place. Call it the Hobie Cat effect.

The Hobie Cat effect can be illustrated formally using a diagram showing the supply of and demand for bank reserves or federal funds under a floor system. The supply schedule for federal funds is, as usual, a vertical line, the position of which varies with changes in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. The reserve demand schedule, on the other hand, slopes downward, but only until it reaches the going IOER rate, here initially assumed to be set at 25 basis points. At that point the demand schedule becomes horizontal, because banks would rather accumulate excess reserves that yield the IOER rate than lend reserves overnight for an even lower return.

For the initial stock of reserves R(1), starting at the equilibrium point “a,” a slight reduction in the IOER rate would suffice to get the banking system back onto the sloped part of its reserve demand schedule, at point “b,” where reserves are again scarce at the margin. But once the stock of reserves has increased to R(2), it takes a much more substantial reduction in the IOER rate — perhaps, as the move in the illustration from “c” to “d” suggests, even into negative territory — to make reserves scarce at the margin again, and to thereby make switching to a corridor system, by a modest further reduction in the IOER rate, possible without any need for central bank asset sales.[1]

Does this mean that the Fed can never hope to escape from its current floor system unless it reduces its IOER rate substantially, and that it might even have to resort to a negative rate? It doesn’t. And it’s here that the Hobie Cat analogy fails, for while you can’t drain the mast of a Hobie Cat that’s turned turtle, the Fed can drain the banking system of any or all of the reserves it created after 2008. The obvious, and most prudent, way out of the floor system is, therefore, for the Fed to retrace the steps that got it into that system, by first shrinking its balance sheet far enough to return the stock of reserves to a point close to the kink in the federal funds demand schedule, and then reducing the IOER rate enough to make reserves scarce at the margin, thereby reviving interbank lending and establishing a corridor system.

Considering how many excess reserves banks are now holding, all of this is still a tall order. But it beats having an operating framework that leaves our monetary system sodden and adrift.


[1] Because the move from “c” to “d,” like that from “a” to “b,” involves no change in the total stock of bank reserves, readers may be tempted to assume that it also involves no reduction in the quantity of excess reserves, and hence no change in banks’ inclination to hoard such reserves. The temptation should be resisted: although banks hold the same total quantity of reserves at “d” as at “c,” the former equilibrium involves a higher quantity of bank lending and deposit creation, hence a higher value of required reserves, with a correspondingly lower value of excess reserves.

[Cross-posted from]

President Trump recently said that he would deploy troops to the Mexican border in response to the over-hyped story of about 1,000 Central Americans who are walking to the U.S. border to ask for asylum, which is their right under American law. “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” President Trump said on Tuesday. “That’s a big step. We really haven’t done that before, or certainly not very much before.” On the contrary, American Presidents have ordered troops to the border to assist in immigration enforcement several times and all of them when the flow of illegal immigrants was significantly greater than it is today.

When the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Wetback in 1954 (yes, that is what the government called it), then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell asked the U.S. Army to help round up and remove illegal immigrants.  According to Matt Matthews in his “The US Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective,” the Army refused to deploy troops for that purpose because it would disrupt training, cost too much money at a time of budget cuts, and it would have required at least a division of troops to secure the border.  According to Matthews, head of the INS General Swing remarked in 1954 that deploying U.S. Army troops on the border was a “perfectly horrible” idea that would “destroy relations with Mexico.” It was also unnecessary.

In 1954, the 1,079 Border Patrol agents made 1,028,246 illegal immigrant apprehensions or 953 apprehensions per agent that year.  For the entire border, Border Patrol agents collectively made 2,817 apprehensions per day in 1954 with a force that was 95 percent smaller than today’s Border Patrol. In other words, the average Border Patrol agent apprehended 2.6 illegal immigrants per day in 1954. Neither President Eisenhower nor the military considered that inflow of illegal immigrants to be large enough to warrant the deployment of troops along the border.  The expansion of the Bracero guest worker visa program increased the opportunity for legal migration to such an extent that it drove virtually all would-be illegal immigrants into the legal market, crashing the number of apprehensions by 93 percent by 1956.

In 2018, President Trump has ordered troops to the border to help the current number of 19,437 Border Patrol agents apprehend the roughly 1,000 Central American asylum seekers who are slowly making their way north (but probably won’t make it all the way to the border). There are currently about 19 Border Patrol agents for each Central American asylum-seeker in this caravan. In 2017, Border Patrol apprehended about 360,000 illegal immigrants or about 18 per Border Patrol agents over the entire year, which works out to one apprehension per Border Patrol agents every 20 days. By that measure, Border Patrol agents in 1954 individually apprehended an average of 53 times as many illegal immigrants as Border Patrol agents did in 2017. If the current caravan makes it to the United States border, it would add about a single day’s worth of apprehensions. Border Patrol should be able to handle this comparatively small number of asylum seekers without military aid as they have done so before many times.

It is also unclear what the troops will actually accomplish on the border. Since the members of the caravan intend to surrender to Border Patrol or Customs Officers and ask for asylum, the troops serve no purpose. They will not deter asylum seekers. Border Patrol agents are not overwhelmed by entries even though they constantly plead poverty in an effort to capture more taxpayer resources. The most likely explanation for the proposed deployment is politics, just like the previous deployments.

Other Border Deployments

Since 1982, most U.S. military deployments and operations along the Mexican border were intended to counter the import of illegal drugs.  The regular deployment of troops for that purpose ended in 1997 after a U.S. Marine shot and killed Esequiel Hernandez Jr., an American citizen, as he was out herding goats.  By July of that year, Secretary of Defense William Cohen suspended the use of armed soldiers on the border for anti-drug missions. 

On May 15, 2006, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border as part of Operation Jump Start to provide a surge of border enforcement while the government was hiring more Border Patrol agents.  In 2006, there were about 59 apprehensions per Border Patrol agent or one per agent every four days.  Operation Jump Start ended on July 15, 2008.  In that year, there was an average of one apprehension every nine days per agent during the entire year.  President Obama also deployed 1,200 troops to the border in 2010 to assist Border Patrol during a time of falling apprehensions.  They left in 2012.  In that year, Border Patrol agents individually apprehended an average of one illegal immigrant every 16 days. 

The two recent deployments to assist in enforcing immigration law along the border occurred when there were fewer apprehensions, represented by more days between each apprehension for each agent (Figure 1).  The higher the number for the blue line in Figure 1, the fewer people Border Patrol agents individually apprehend.  From about 1970 through 2006, the Border Patrol faced an annual inflow of illegal immigrants far in excess of anything in recent years yet President Trump has decided that this is the time to put troops on the border.

Figure 1

The Average Number of Days Between Each Border Patrol Apprehension Per Year

Sources: Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Naturalization Service.  

Legal Issues

Whether President Trump’s proposed deployment of troops along the border is legal is a difficult question to answer.  The use of the military in domestic law enforcement has to be authorized by Congress but they have authorized it for drug enforcement several times along the border.  Furthermore, border enforcement might be distinct from domestic law enforcement as even the rights of American citizens are legally curtailed in border zones.  Additionally, Congress arguably granted funds and a blanket authority to deploy troops along the border in the Defense Authorization Act for 2005 to defend against a “threat” or “aggression” against the territory or domestic population of the United States.  As with most powers, Congress has ceded most of its authority to the President in this area.

Regardless of the legalities, the proposed deployment of American troops to the border without a clear mission at a time of low and falling illegal immigrant entries is an unnecessary waste of time and resources that could put Americans in harm’s way for no gain.  

I am a fan of Kimberley Strassel’s columns about federal politics in the Wall Street Journal. But her recent column about the omnibus spending bill—which increased spending 13 percent in one year—was off the mark.

Strassel suggested that Trump and the Republicans did not want to increase spending that much, but the Democrats forced them into it. Trump “felt pressured to sign it,” while the “Democrats used the bill to hold the military hostage to their own domestic boondoggles.”

Watching Congress in recent years, I have concluded something different. The real problem is that most Republicans support higher spending on nearly all programs. The problem is not that Democrats push them into accepting higher spending. Most Republicans want it, and that is why majorities of them in the House and Senate voted for the omnibus.

President Trump proposed an array of spending cuts in his 2019 budget. He proposed cutting subsidies for agriculture, community development, economic development, education, energy, foreign aid, housing, urban transit, and many other things. How many congressional Republicans—let alone GOP leaders—have you seen actively pushing those cuts? Very few I would guess, with the exception some members pushing to cut subsidies for Planned Parenthood.

Recent congressional hearings on Trump’s budget reveal broad GOP support for spending increases, and virtually no support for his proposed cuts. Cabinet secretaries have been testifying to House appropriations subcommittees on the president’s budget, and each committee member is generally given five minutes to make comments.

My intern, John Postiglione, watched seven of these recent hearings and took notes on what each Republican member said. (Hearing details are below).

Here is what John found:

  • Not a single Republican made a supportive comment about a specific Trump spending cut during the seven hearings. These hearings included 47 speaking time slots by 26 different Republican members (members can be on multiple subcommittees).
  • Numerous Republicans objected to Trump’s proposed cuts. In the Commerce hearing, Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Evan Jenkins (R-WVA) opposed cuts to the Economic Development Administration (EDA). In the Education hearing, Tom Cole (R-OK) opposed cuts to impact aid, academic enrichment grants, and other subsidies. In the Energy hearing, Jaime Beutler (R-WA) opposed privatizing the power marketing administrations, while Dan Newhouse (R-WA) opposed cuts to energy subsidies. In the HUD hearing, David Valadao (R-CA) opposed cuts to community development. In the Labor hearing, Cole and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) opposed cuts to Job Corps. In the Health and Human Services hearing, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) opposed cuts to numerous programs.
  • Many Republicans made comments supportive of various federal spending activities, particularly on programs they viewed as important to their districts.

The comments opposing Trump’s cuts were sometimes subtle, but it was clear what side the member came down on. Some comments were not subtle. Here is Hal Rogers in the Commerce hearing objecting to Trump’s proposed cut to the EDA:

We can’t afford to leave behind Americans in certain sections of the country like mine. I want to ask you about the economic development administration. … This dire need is exactly why over these 50 years, this EDA administration has been so helpful to us in recruiting jobs. To keep our people at home and prevent starvation. Mr. Secretary, I am deeply concerned about this proposal. 

I have a few questions for Rep. Rogers:

  • If the government has been subsidizing sections of Kentucky for 50 years, and they are still poor, doesn’t it suggest that subsidies are not the answer?
  • Would state and local governments in Kentucky, and the Kentucky people, let Kentuckians starve if federal subsidies were cut?
  • Isn’t Kentucky’s EDA funding of about $8 million a year too small to make a difference in Kentucky’s $197 billion GDP, let alone the state’s level of starvation?

President Trump set the stage for spending reforms by proposing perhaps the largest cuts to liberal, big-government programs since President Reagan. That provided congressional Republicans a great opportunity to push hard for cuts—an opportunity that they have completely blown.

My intern, John, looked at appropriations committee hearings, but a similar pro-spending tilt is evident with Republicans on the authorizing committees, such as the agriculture and transportation committees. Some members, such as those in the House Freedom Caucus, do push for spending cuts, but they are heavily outnumbered even in their own party.

Here are the hearings that John reviewed, with the date, names of cabinet secretaries, and the number of Republican members who made comments:

Commerce, March 20, witness Wilbur Ross, 6 GOP members.

Education, March 20, witness Betsy DeVos, 7 GOP members.

Energy, March 15, witness Rick Perry, 7 GOP members.

Health and Human Services, March 15, witness Alex Azar, 7 GOP members.

Housing and Urban Development, March 20, witness Ben Carson, 6 GOP members.

Labor, March 6, witness Alexander Acosta, 7 GOP members.

Treasury, March 6, witness Steven Mnuchin, 7 GOP members.

I think we have interpreted the comments of the members fairly, but my apologies if we misinterpreted, or if we missed any members who expressed support for cuts.

In sum, on reviewing seven recent budget hearings, we did not find any supportive statements for any of President Trump’s specific cuts by members of his own party. A number of Republicans made comments generally supportive of fiscal restraint, but that does not move the ball forward if we actually want to downsize particular programs.

Economist Steven Horwitz writes in The USA Today about President Trump’s proposal to reduce legal opioid prescriptions by one third. Such a drastic reduction would inevitably harm people like Horwitz, who relates his experience with excruciating back pain and how opioids were essential to relieving his agony and helping his body heal:

People who wish to drastically limit access to opioids need to know the reality of this kind of pain. Getting out of bed took 10 minutes or more because even one small wrong movement while getting to a sitting position would cause severe back spasms, making me shudder with pain. Walking around my house required balancing myself on walls and door frames.

The pain from sitting down and standing up from the toilet required that I use a chair to hold my weight like one would use a walker. I had visions of being found in the bathroom, stuck on the toilet or even unable to get up off of the floor. Every little twist and turn of my body risked those spasms and shuddering.

Eventually I realized my mistake and got a prescription for opioids. The quality of my life quickly and dramatically improved, as within two or three days, the pain was reduced substantially and my mobility and mood were significantly better. I could walk comfortably and hug my kids again.

It’s important to understand that this kind of debilitating pain not only causes unnecessary suffering, it prevents patients from healing. It takes every bit of energy you have to fight it, and your body has little to nothing left to use to heal. Some medical professionals call pain “the fifth vital sign” because of the way in which it matters for a patient’s health. Opioids enabled me to relax, to sleep and to heal.

I too am one of the people Trump’s policy might harm.

I suffer from episodic back pain. Everything Horwitz describes I have experienced. If anything, I would say he understates the agony. In my experience, the pain can be more like torture—as if someone were deliberately trying to inflict as much pain as possible, for the purpose of breaking me emotionally and leaving me trembling in fear of its return.

Like Horwitz, I did not want to treat my back pain with opioids. I had previously used them to recover from knee surgery and I disliked the experience so much that after my second knee surgery, I refused them. Like Horwitz, I feared addiction. So I tried stretching. I tried physical therapy. I tried non-prescription analgesics.

Nothing worked until I broke down—until the pain broke me—and I tried opioids. They worked. They eliminated my pain and, as Horwitz says, that allowed me to heal. My pain could come back at any time, and so I too could be one of the people Trump’s policy would leave to suffer in excruciating pain. 

People who have never experienced back pain have no business making opioid policy.