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The country saw other kinds of identity and values-based battles in March, but the month was dominated by one thing: guns, especially how you protest against them, for them, or try your best to stay neutral.

Of the 24 conflicts recorded on the Battle Map in March, 15 involved guns in some way. The large majority were directly about the March 14 National School Walkout, primarily whether schools should allow walkouts without ramifications in support of free speech; whether concerns about order and safety required that those who walked out be punished; if allowing a walkout to protest gun violence but not other causes amounted to viewpoint discrimination; and what to say, if anything, in events held in lieu of walkouts. Gun-related conflicts were recorded in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, and South Carolina, and there were likely many we did not find.

Among the incidents that got the most press attention was the case of Rocklin, CA teacher Julianne Benzel, who was apparently suspended by the district for holding an in-class discussion in which she mused that if an anti-gun walkout were allowed, so should a protest opposing abortion, lest the district treat some views unequally. So intrigued by the idea was student Brandon Gillespie that he planned a national pro-life walkout on April 11, which may well be a prominent battle in the April Dispatch. In a reversal of the expected walkout fear—kids getting in trouble for walking out in protest—a student in Hilliard City, Ohio, was punished for staying in his classroom during outdoor activities sanctioned by the school on Walkout Day. District officials said the student was punished for failing to go to the right place for students choosing not to participate, but the boy’s father said, “He was uncomfortable…as he thought that going outside would most likely be politicizing a horrific event which he wanted no part of.” Finally, a girl in New Jersey was punished for walking out, but what grabbed headlines was that the school would not accept roughly $1000 worth of flowers sent to her by people who admired her standing up for what she believed in. Said the student, “They’re always like, ‘You can always speak your mind and stuff, you have the freedom of speech here,’ and then when we do it, we’re always getting in trouble.”

Public schools absolutely upholding freedom of expression is impossible unless schools have no rules about what you can wear or say, when, about what, and to whom. But having no rules would render effective teaching very difficult, if not impossible. Not surprisingly, this tends to come to a head with highly charged issues like the war in Vietnam, or gun violence, especially when schools and students are so immediately affected by them. It is no coincidence that of all the polls we’ve put on the Battle Map Facebook page the one that has gotten by far the most attention—as the Dispatch reported last month—was about guns in schools. And it is not surprising to see quotes like this from coverage of a battle in Lacey Township, New Jersey, where two students were suspended for a Facebook post showing pictures of a family trip to a gun range: “’People like us are under attack,” said resident John Pinto.

No one should feel besieged by the schools for which they must pay. But we know that they often do, because when opposing views collide in public schools, one must lose. School choice would go a long way to ending that.

The transit industry loses $50 billion a year. It’s customer base is dwindling. Business in many regions has declined by 20 to 40 percent. Yet Bloomberg, one of the nation’s leading business publications, says, “The outlook for public transit isn’t all that bad.”

Sheesh. Just how bad does it have to be to be “that bad”?

According to Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith, light-rail and commuter-rail ridership “are at all-time highs.” Although his chart appears to show ridership increasing through 2017, according to the source of data in his chart, ridership reports from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), both light rail and commuter rail declined in 2017 and light rail (which APTA equates with streetcars) was much higher before 1955 than it is today.

It is true that both light- and commuter-rail ridership in 2017 were higher than 2014, a time period during which, Smith claims, heavy rail (subways and elevateds) was “down only slightly.” The different scales on Smith’s charts disguise the fact that heavy rail lost almost nine times as many riders during that period as were gained by light and commuter rail together.

Moreover, the only reason light rail grew at all was the opening of new lines, and all of that growth was offset by declining bus ridership in the cities that opened the new lines. Between 2014 and 2017, buses nationwide lost 35 riders for every one gained by light and commuter rail.

Based on the charts, Smith concludes that “the decline in U.S. transit comes almost entirely from buses” and that “trains will still be a good bet.” It’s true that about 80 percent of the decline is from buses. But buses are the backbone of the industry, providing 100 percent of transit ridership in most regions and, until the recent decline, more than 50 percent nationwide, so a loss in bus ridership can’t be dismissed as irrelevant.

Smith’s presumption is that bus and rail ridership aren’t connected. In fact, one reason bus ridership is plummeting is that too many cities bet on trains and the resulting construction cost overruns, the high costs of rail maintenance, and debt service on rail bonds forced them to cut bus service.

Here are some hard facts. According to data just released by the Federal Transit Administration, nationwide transit ridership in the first two months of 2018 was 2.2 percent less than the same two months of 2017. In turn, 2017 ridership was 4.9 percent less than 2016 and 11.5 percent less than 2014. Nearly all forms of transit are declining.

If an 11.5 percent nationwide loss since 2014 doesn’t sound “that bad,” how about a 31 percent loss in Cleveland? Or 20 to 26 percent losses in Charlotte, Columbus, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, St. Louis, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, and Washington DC? Or 15 to 20 percent losses in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among many other regions? Since 2010, Memphis is down 40 percent!

These regions are all very different – some large, some small; some growing rapidly, some slowly; some with trains, some with only buses – but the trend is downward everywhere except Seattle. And Seattle’s upward trend may have more to do with the confluence of Millennials, university students, and Pacific Northwest weirdness than the kind of transit Seattle is offering, so should not be construed as an example for other cities to follow.

Trains are an especially bad bet because they represent an expensive 30- to 50-year investment, so if the bet proves wrong, cities will be stuck paying the mortgage on empty railcars and tracks for decades. Outside of Manhattan, buses can move more people than trains at a far lower cost, and in Manhattan, new rail construction is ridiculously expensive.

The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a new proposal paper, Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislatures. The agenda covers a wide range of issues within the federal and state justice systems. Several of the paper’s suggestions overlap with what we’re doing here at Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice. Specifically, the agenda calls for the federal government to allow the states decide their own marijuana laws and policies, which aligns with our longstanding commitment to federalism and ties directly to our commitment to rolling back unconstitutional overcriminalization. The paper also supports enabling police officers to divert individuals experiencing mental health crisis or drug-related problems to social services rather than take them to jail. This is a smart solution to what we call “self-defeating policing”: the policies and practices that may inflict harmful unintended consequences on communities without making them safer or providing for more personal security. In the same vein, we applaud Brennan’s call to courts to adjust civil fines on a person’s ability to pay. Civil remedies are generally superior to jail for minor offenses, but to the poor, fines and fees can become onerous new burdens that effectively criminalize poverty.

Of course, there are some proposals in the Brennan agenda where we would take a more limited government approach, such as not replacing federal subsidies that encourage mass incarceration with new federal subsidies to go in another direction, but these should not detract from the opportunities papers like this one present to the broader criminal justice community. Criminal justice reform remains among the most promising bipartisan efforts to improve society and increase individual liberty throughout the country.

You can read the whole Brennan Center report here. For more Cato work on criminal justice and civil liberties, go here.

Tennessee’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act of 1972 regulates roadside signs by imposing onerous restrictions as well as location and permit requirements. The statute also provides exemptions, particularly with regard to so-called “on-premises” signs. On-premises signs are those that either advertise activities that are conducted on the property or the sale of the property on which the sign is located. If a sign fails to qualify as “on-premises,” it’s subject to the full weight of the law and is often outright prohibited.

Based on the 2015 Supreme Court case of Reed v. Town of Gilberti, the federal district court ruled this on-premises/off-premises distinction to be a content-based regulation subject to strict scrutiny, ultimately finding it to violate the First Amendment. Cato certainly agrees with this outcome, and we have now filed a brief supporting it after Tennessee appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Our basic point is this: Regardless of whether the court applies “strict scrutiny” or some lesser form of review, the statute is unconstitutional because of an insufficient fit between the ends the state claims to pursue and the means it uses.

While strict scrutiny requires the government’s interest to be “compelling” and the means employed to be the least restrictive possible, lesser scrutiny employs a somewhat more forgiving standard; a narrowly tailored regulation must directly advance the government’s “substantial” or “significant” interests.

Unlike similar statutes in other states, Tennessee’s Billboard Act applies even to noncommercial speech. In fact, the unauthorized sign at the center of this case was overtly noncommercial, featuring an American flag combined with Olympic rings in one instance and a reference to the holiday season in another. But because the tests for content-neutral regulations and commercial-speech restrictions are virtually identical, we used examples from both of these types of cases to drive home the idea that this law fails constitutional muster.

While Tennessee identified traffic safety and the aesthetic beauty of its highways as reasons for its law, neither interest is well-connected to the Billboard Act’s on-premises/off-premises distinction. Not only did the evidence that the state offered range from unsupported assertions to irrelevant witness testimony, but the statute and accompanying regulations were also completely irrational. For example, while the law would allow large, unsightly, highly distracting on-premises signs, it would ban small, unobtrusive off-premises signs. The associated regulations are even more ridiculous, actually attempting to make a legal distinction between service stations’ advertising “accessory” products like tires and “incidental” products like cigarettes.

Further, although lesser scrutiny doesn’t require the government to use the absolute “least-restrictive means” possible, the existence of numerous viable alternatives that impose less of a burden on free speech provides good evidence that the means-ends fit is lacking. For example, rather than imposing the nonsensical on-premises/off-premises distinction, the state could regulate the size, height, color scheme, font, and spacing between all roadside signs to prevent distracted driving and scenic degradation.

Finally, the statutory text and overtly commercial context of the regulatory scheme makes it nearly impossible for any noncommercial speech to qualify as “on-premises.” And since on-premises signs constitute the major exception to the statute’s restrictions, this means that the Billboard Act actually restricts noncommercial speech to a far greater extent than its commercial counterparts. Worse still, the on-premises/off-premises distinction imposes an especially disproportionate burden on one of the most highly protected forms of speech: the free expression of ideas.

Because the Billboard Act neither directly advances Tennessee’s interests in traffic safety and beautiful roads, nor qualifies as a “narrowly tailored” regulation, the Sixth Circuit should uphold the district court’s ruling and toss the statute. Regardless of whether the court applies “strict,” “intermediate,” or some other kind of scrutiny, the Billboard Act is a clear First Amendment violation. The Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati, will hear Thomas v. Schroer, later this spring. 

What role should the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau play in regulating its industry? Although there is debate as to whether the Bureau should exist at all, policy analyst Diego Zuluaga argues in an op-ed recently published at The Hill.

Established in the wake of the financial crisis, the CFPB courted controversy from the start. As an independent agency headed by a single director who could only be dismissed for negligence or malfeasance, the bureau enjoyed an autonomy unprecedented in U.S. regulatory history.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that ’[the CFPB’s] Director enjoys more unilateral authority than any other officer […] of the U.S. Government, other than the President.’

The first director, Richard Cordray, set about remaking American consumer finance by slapping punitive fines on providers and broadening the CFPB’s remit to include, among others, auto dealerships.

Under his direction, the bureau introduced a rule to restrict arbitration clauses in financial contracts, an intervention that would likely have raised the cost of credit.

Cordray also championed measures to severely constrain payday lending, an expensive form of short-term borrowing that can nonetheless be a lifeline for borrowers who have run out of options.

Indeed, throughout the CFPB’s first five years of existence, Cordray made little effort to dispel the fear among financial providers that the bureau was out to get them.

This may have been Cordray’s understanding of what the CFPB ought legitimately to do. Yet, in combination with the absence of effective checks and balances, his proclivity for regulatory intervention invariably created uncertainty.

By and large, the CFBP has been a destabilizing force for the financial industry. Zuluaga shows some of the ways the bureau has harmed the sector it purports to protect.

Consumer finance is an area particularly in need of legislative certainty, because it involves critical sources of short-term funding for households and is currently undergoing substantial disruption from online lenders and greater use of data in credit allocation.

Furthermore, the most prolific users of products regulated by the CFPB, such as short-term lenders, debt collectors and mortgage servicers, are people on low and middle incomes.

Politicization is not the CFPB’s only weak point. The bureau has devoted precious little effort to ensuring that regulation does not stand in the way of innovation and choice. Yet, as a rule, firms should be allowed to offer a range of products, and consumers should have the freedom to choose.

Zuluaga advocates turning the bureau from a single-director agency into a multi-member board, akin to the SEC or the Fed, and moving the bureau away from the auspices of the Fed and over to the FTC. 

The Fed’s regulatory remit involves prudential regulation and financial stability; that is, making sure bank balance sheets can withstand losses and, if they don’t, that contagion is minimized.

The FTC’s mission, on the other hand, is to protect consumers and promote competition. The CFPB’s role better matches the FTC’s because it involves not risk minimization but protecting the financial well-being of consumers.

A greater focus on competition and consumer welfare, moreover, might help the bureau to resist the temptation to overregulate.

And although Zuluaga acknowledges that there is a case for eliminating the bureau altogether, he cautions that so long as it still exists “it must be turned from foe into enabler of consumer finance.” 

The full piece is available here.

In a July 1932 radio address, Franklin Roosevelt said, “Let us have the courage to stop borrowing to meet continuing deficits. Stop the deficits … Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns. But you and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

That was a surprisingly sound bit of advice from that particular president. However, after Roosevelt was elected, he helped entrench a new culture of spending and deficits in Washington that triumphed over a traditional approach of prudence and restraint in public budgeting. FDR’s fiscal legacy continues to haunt us today.

New projections show a grim fiscal future and crushing debt burdens on young Americans. The chart shows CBO’s “alternative” projection for federal debt as a share of the economy, per CRFB. The projection may be more realistic than CBO’s baseline because it assumes current tax cuts are extended and discretionary spending caps will continue to be breached in coming years.

Without reforms, federal debt held by the public will rise from 78 percent of GDP this year to 105 percent by 2028. That will be triple the level in the early 2000s. Interest on the debt will more than double as a share of GDP from 1.6 percent today to 3.3 percent by 2028.

Unless we change course, the rise in debt will send us to the poorhouse. Some economists, such as Paul Krugman, have told us not to worry because “we owe it to ourselves.” That view is completely wrong, as I discuss here. For one thing, we owe about 40 percent of federal debt to foreigners.

But more importantly, trillions of dollars for principal and interest payments will have to be forcibly extracted from taxpayers down the road, which will damage the economy and deprive people of a growing share of their earnings. If rising debt precipitates a financial crisis—as did in Greece, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere—it will impose widespread economic harm in a rapid manner.

Today’s politicians are to blame, but the structural and cultural forces that got us here began more than eight decades ago. The 1930s was the turning point. Federal policymakers embraced “entitlement” programs that put spending increases on auto-pilot, and they began major spending on previously state, local, and private activities. At the same time, Keynesian economic thinking convinced politicians to discard the old view that deficits were bad in favor of the new and false view that deficits stimulate growth.

Deficit spending was not something that started under Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Presidents and congresses since the New Deal have only balanced the budget in about 1 of every 7 years. The chart shows that during the nation’s first 139 years, policymakers balanced the budget 68 percent of the time, but since 1930 they have balanced the budget just 15 percent of the time.

The irresponsible practice of deficit spending is now deeply entrenched. It appears that only a revolution in voting behavior, budgeting rules, or Washington culture can save us from a fiscal calamity down the road.

For more on the rise of debt and problems it creates, see here.

Publication of the CBO’s “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2018 to 2028” has once again brought attention to the dire outlook for the federal public finances.

The challenge is best thought of in the following way:

1) there is a structural challenge associated with projections for debt-to-GDP ballooning in the coming decades due to unchanged entitlement programs interacting with an aging population

2) politicians have sailed us into these fiscal headwinds with a large, structural budget deficit, and debt held by the public is already at its highest level since just after World War II

The policy implications are clear: substantial entitlement reforms are, and always were, necessary if the US were to have any hope at preventing ever-rising federal debt (as Brian Riedl indicates in this excellent post).

But running something much closer to an overall balanced budget sooner rather than later is needed if the aim is to get the debt-to-GDP ratio heading back down towards historic norms over the coming decades.

It’s in this context the CBO numbers are so gloomy.

Over the next 10 years, based on current laws, the CBO estimates that the deficit will instead increase from 3.5 percent of GDP in 2017 to 5.4 percent in 2022, before fluctuating between 4.6 percent and 5.2 percent from 2023 to 2028. This compares with an average annual deficit of 2.9 percent over the next 50 years. Debt held by the public as a result is projected to rise to 96.2 percent of GDP by 2028.

But note this is based on “current law,” and assumes substantial income tax increases in 2025 as individual tax cuts expire, and that there will be spending cuts too.

As the CBO notes:

If those changes did not occur and current policies were continued instead, much larger deficits and much greater debt would result: The deficit would grow to 7.1 percent of GDP by 2028 and would average 6.3 percent of GDP from 2022 to 2028…debt held by the public under that alternative fiscal scenario would reach 105 percent of GDP by the end of 2028, an amount that has been exceeded only one time in the nation’s history.

The CBO data clearly shows that revenue as a proportion of GDP was expected to have risen back to its 2017 level by 2023 even before the expiration of many tax cuts, showing that from then on its rising spending that is driving the worsening outlook in debt over this period.

If the Republicans really wanted to lock in their tax cuts, they needed spending restraint. Instead, now, the fiscal outlook is set to deteriorate, tax cuts are being blamed (even though projections show tax revenues will still increase as a proportion of GDP), and on current policies debt is heading north pretty rapidly.

Here we go again. The 2017 round of the Nation’s Report Card was released today. The results shouldn’t surprise anyone – they are almost entirely flat at the national level. However, that doesn’t stop educators and education reformers from spinning the results to fit whatever agendas they might have. Those who defend previous reforms claim that computer-based testing must be to blame for stagnant performance – and that students today are “relatively poorer” than they were in the past. On the other hand, groups calling for additional reform claim that the NAEP results should startle Americans.

We should all settle down. Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. Test scores tell us very little about success.

Education scholars such as University of Arkansas’s Jay P. Greene have been talking about the weaknesses of standardized test scores for a long time. Specifically, Greene frequently points out that at least 10 rigorous school choice studies indicate disconnects between effects on test scores and effects on long-term outcomes such as attainment and earnings. In fact, Diane Ravitch recently praised Greene for shining a light on this issue. And it’s not every day that Ravitch and Greene agree on something.

Research reviews indicate that Greene is on to something. For example, a recent review of the academic evidence on the subject finds that “there is a weak relationship between impacts on test scores and later attainment outcomes.”

Similarly, I have started to review the causal private school choice literature that indicates divergences between effects on test scores and other long-run outcomes such as student criminality, effort, and happiness. As shown in the table below, I’ve found 11 disconnects in the literature since 2001. For example, the sample of students from the state-mandated evaluation of the Milwaukee voucher program saw no statistically significant improvements in reading test scores after the fourth year. However, those same students were more likely to enroll in a four-year college and less likely to engage in criminal activity later on in life. In other words, putting too much weight on standardized tests – like NAEP – could compromise the character development necessary for real lifelong success.

Studies with Disconnects Between Effects on Test Scores and Long-Run Outcomes

 

2. Even if test scores were strong measures of long-run success, changes in NAEP score averages alone do not tell us much about changes in nationwide performance.

Let’s assume test scores mattered. Even then, an uptick in NAEP scores wouldn’t necessarily tell us that overall performance improved. People like former U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan claim that the student population “is relatively poorer and considerably more diverse” than in the past. He may have a point. For example, single-parent households have nearly tripled since 1960. However, many scholars also point out that inflation-adjusted per capita income has nearly doubled since the 70’s, while the share of citizens with college degrees surged over the same period.

Since the magnitude – and the direction – of the student population’s relative advantage changes over time, we cannot confidently determine whether NAEP performance has actually gotten better or worse.

3. Even if test scores were strong measures of success, and we could somehow know that changes in NAEP scores reflected changes in nationwide performance, we would have no idea what policies affected those changes.

Now let’s also assume that – somehow – student advantage was held perfectly constant over time. Even then, we would have no idea what specific policies affected the changes in student performance. States that have different education policies have different populations and laws that could also affect their average standardized test scores.

Significant gains were made in Florida, for example. In fact, Florida was ranked the best-performing state for 4th grade math and reading scores after the Urban Institute controlled for several student background characteristics. But why? As a supporter of private school choice, I could spin these results in my favor by pointing to the fact that Florida has over 100,000 students participating in their privately funded private school choice program. But the truth is that the experts currently have no idea if the school choice programs in Florida have anything to do with the gains.

None of us should get this hyped up over standardized test scores. After all, these crude NAEP score averages unfortunately cannot tell us much of anything absent rigorous empirical analysis. Anyone claiming otherwise needs to slow down and reassess the situation.

Another set of national exam results—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—is upon us, and much will likely be made of them. But in the aggregate, what the new scores show is just that things haven’t changed much over the last couple of years, and only as captured by this particular test. Burrowing down and comparing states, subgroups of kids, and smaller jurisdictions that have implemented different policies, spent more or less, and experienced numerous other things, might suggest some avenues for further exploration, but the only conclusion we can state with any confidence is that nothing happened—not Common Core, not school choice, not the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—that appears to have seismically altered NAEP outcomes.

That may be just fine: Americans have increasingly and broadly rejected standardized tests scores as the end-all-and-be-all of education, culminating in the ESSA, which in late 2015 replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and its obsession with testing. And as we are increasingly learning, tests scores may have little connection to other outcomes like high school completion, and neither really addresses whether kids are learning desirable moral values, or creative thinking, or the myriad other big things parents want for their children.

That important preface offered, what are the highlights, such as they are, in the latest NAEP?

First, that overall scores for 4th and 8th graders—no high school kids this time around—were statistically flat between 2015 and 2017 for all but 8th grade reading, which went up two scale points, from 265 to 267. (Note, they were at 268 in 2013, so stagnation persisted over four years). Within those numbers, top scorers tended to see scores rise, and lower scorers scores decrease, while lower-income students tended to see stagnation or slight dips.  Private schools—actually, only Catholic schools are reported—also saw general stagnation.

Maybe there are some standout states? For math, only Florida saw scores rise in both 4th and 8th grade, hitting a new high in the state for 4th grade, but not yet returning to the state’s 8th grade peak in 2013. In reading no state saw increases in 4th grade, but Florida was joined by nine other states with increasing 8th grade scores. So Florida may be doing more right than any other state, but what that is NAEP can’t tell us. It has been a very choice-friendly place, but also fond of test-driven accountability systems and even requiring kids to pick “majors” in high school. Heck, maybe it just does the best standardized testing prep, which may explain a lot of score increases in the past. (Corey DeAngelis will have more on what NAEP can’t tell us soon!)

Finally, 21 districts have new NAEP scores. Not surprisingly given the national results, most saw little change between 2015 and 2017. San Diego, though, saw statistically significant increases in 4th grade math and reading, so maybe that city bears watching.

Two years of new data is not very much, and a whole lot influences standardized test scores. And frankly, such scores tell us only a fraction—maybe a very tiny one—of what parents want to know about education. So let’s hope we don’t lose our collective heads over these scores, and do not see a new policy obsession with standardized testing outcomes like we experienced under No Child Left Behind. Instead, let’s let individual educators and parents—who value so many things—choose what they think is most important in education.

There are many aggravating tropes that keep reemerging in the debate over immigration policy but one of the worst is that every problem with the U.S. immigration system is the result of the supposedly perfidious Mexico.  Changes in Mexican law and policy certainly have an impact on immigration to the United States but it is not true that our laws would operate wonderfully even if foreign governments had policies to support them.  Those who blame Mexico should, at the minimum, get their stories straight. 

In many versions of this tale, the Mexican government is hypocritical because its immigration laws are strict yet it complains about laws like SB 1070 in Arizona and the deportation of Mexican citizens from the United States.  Talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh famously used this rhetorical tactic when sarcastically (maybe?) proposing a series of immigration reforms that mirrored the worst of Mexican immigration law in 2007.          

The Mexican government fiercely criticized the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, a bill that forced state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.  When then-President of Mexico Felipe Calderon visited the White House and intended to complain about the law directly to President Obama, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) said, “I wonder if they’ll discuss whether or not Calderon supports his own country’s immigration policy.”  Both Limbaugh and Poe rightly criticized Mexico’s famously restrictive, self-destructive, and hypocritical immigration policy.

Partly in response to the American criticism, Mexico gradually reformed its immigration laws beginning in 2008.  In that year, Mexico reduced the punishment for illegal entry to a maximum fine of 5,000 pesos, down from a potential ten-year prison sentence.  They also created a temporary agricultural guest worker visa program for agricultural laborers from Guatemala and Belize working in Mexico’s southern states.  In 2010, the Mexican government stated that illegal immigrants would not have to fear immigration enforcement when reporting human rights violations or receiving medical treatment. 

The Mexican government did not stop there.  The Mexican Congress passed a Migratory Act in 2011 that went into effect on November 1, 2012.  This law replaced the Mexican General Law of Population that was the source of their restrictive immigration laws.  Among other things, the new Mexican immigration law allowed immigrants and migrants equal access to Mexican courts, reduced the power of local police to enforce immigration law, reformed the humanitarian admissions system, simplified entrance and reduced residency requirement by, in part, creating a points system, and created a three-day regional visitor’s visa for people from neighboring countries.  In other words, Mexico liberalized and expanded its legal immigration system.  Although Mexican reforms did not go far enough, they were a significant step away from protectionism toward a more liberal immigration regime. 

Shortly after the Migratory Act of 2011 went into effect, the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) apprehended by Border Patrol skyrocketed (Figure 1).  The change in Mexican immigration law allowed Central Americans to travel to the U.S. border in greater numbers which, combined with the worsening economic and crime problems in Central America, helped exacerbate a surge of non-Mexican (OTM) illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who were overwhelmingly from south of Mexico’s border (Figure 2).  Other non-Mexican legal changes like the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement, that created a visa-less Central America among El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, also made it cheaper for migrants or UAC from those countries to make it to Mexico and then to the United States.    

 

Figure 1

Southwest Border Monthly Border Patrol Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children

Source: Customs and Border Protection.

 

Figure 2

Other than Mexican and Mexican Southwest Border Apprehensions

 

Source: Customs and Border Protection.

As the surge of UACs heated up over the summer of 2014, the American government started pushing Mexico to strictly enforce its own immigration laws before the migrants got the American border.  All of a sudden, Mexico’s immigration laws had become too lax and American politicians and commentators were furious.  The hyperbole from the U.S. government rose to such levels that Marine Corps General John Kelly, then-SOUTHCOM chief, said, “[m]any argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.”  The Soviet Union would have been an existential threat if it attacked the United States during the Cold War but it strained General Kelly’s credibility to claim that a surge of UAC and other migrants, equal to a small percentage of legal admissions that year, was a threat to the country’s existence.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump blamed the Mexican government for America’s illegal immigrant population and frequently said that he will build a wall that Mexico will pay for.  The Mexican hypocrisy of defending illegal immigrants in the United States while having a strict immigration policy on its own southern border rankled Trump and many of his supporters despite recent changes to Mexican immigration law.      

Recently, President Trump criticized the Mexican government for not enforcing its immigration laws well enough in order to stop the caravan of about 1,000 Central Americans traveling to the U.S. border to ask for asylum.  As soon as the Mexican government largely broke up the caravan, President Trump quickly reversed course and praised Mexican laws for being stronger than American laws.

Mexico has serious problems.  Although it has made some strides in recent years, low economic and individual freedom have produced endemic corruption.  The U.S.-subsidized war on drugs has created a level of violence that occasionally reaches civil-war-level death tolls.  Regardless of those problems, Mexico should cease to be the blame for the failures of American immigration policy.  It is easy for American politicians to blame foreign governments rather than take responsibility for a sclerotic American immigration system that Congress has failed to substantially reform in almost three decades.  Recognition that Mexico has serious problems is at odds with the standard political received-wisdom that we should outsource much of our immigration enforcement policy to the very same government with so many problems.  Better American laws that allow more legal immigration through a cheaper, simpler, and better-enforced system will do a lot more to bring order to the border than relying on the Mexican government.  The policies of foreign government affect immigrant flows to the United States and no reasonable person could claim otherwise but the American political tradition of criticizing Mexican immigration law for either being too strict or not strict enough based on the U.S. news cycle should stop.  

The Congressional Budget Office has released new projections for the federal budget.

If Congress makes no reforms, federal spending is expected to rise from $4.14 trillion this year to $7.05 trillion by 2028, as shown in the chart. The rise represents an annual average growth rate of 5.5 percent, substantially higher than the 4.0 percent expected nominal growth rate of the economy.

The spending increases are expected to push up federal deficits from $804 billion this year to $1.53 trillion by 2028, while jacking up federal debt held by the public from $15.7 trillion this year to $28.7 trillion by 2028.

President Trump wants new spending on a NASA moon mission, but spending on existing programs is already blasting off for unknown fiscal frontiers.

Worried that their spending spree in the recent omnibus bill will suppress conservative turnout at the polls this November, Republicans are now considering a “rescission” package. The package of spending cuts—being designed by the White House—could be passed in Congress with simple majorities in both chambers.

The omnibus increased discretionary spending 13 percent in a single year, with large increases in both defense and domestic (nondefense) spending. The bill passed with majorities of Republicans in both House and Senate, and was signed by President Trump.

Some conservative commentators have suggested that Trump and the GOP did not want to increase domestic spending that much, but were pushed into it by the Democrats. Putting a spending rescission package—with cuts to low-value domestic programs—up for a vote would be a nice test of that theory, as it would not need Democratic votes for passage.

Trump proposed many cuts in his 2018 and 2019 federal budgets. Here are some that would be good candidates to include in a rescission package:

  • Ending the Community Development Block Grant.
  • Ending the Economic Development Administration.
  • Ending Essential Air Service subsidies.
  • Ending the USDA’s rural subsidies.
  • Ending various energy industry subsidies.
  • Ending the Low Income Energy Assistance Program.
  • Ending the Community Services Block Grant.
  • Ending the Weatherization Assistance Program.
  • Ending funding for the NEA, NEH, and CPB.
  • Cutting housing rental subsidies.
  • Cutting job-training subsidies.
  • Cutting farm subsidies.
  • Cutting foreign aid subsidies.
  • Cutting federal retirement benefits.

You can read about the merits of most of these cuts at DownsizingGovernment.org.

On November 24, 2015, Keith Wood stood on a public sidewalk in front of a courthouse in Big Rapids, Michigan, and distributed pamphlets published by the Fully Informed Jury Association (“FIJA”). These pamphlets discussed the history of the jury trial as an ancient and sacred safeguard of liberty, and the jury’s crucial role as the voice of the conscience of the community. It reminded jurors that they have the authority to engage in so-called “jury nullification“ — that is, to refuse to return a guilty verdict when doing so would be manifestly unjust, even if legal guilt was proven.

In other words, Mr. Wood was engaged in speech at the very core of the First Amendment’s aegis: classic political advocacy (peacefully distributing pamphlets) in the quintessential public forum (the sidewalk in front of a courthouse) on a matter of public concern more ancient than Magna Carta, and at the heart of Anglo-Saxon law (the rights, duties, and independence of citizen jurors). But Mr. Wood’s advocacy nevertheless led to his arrest and conviction for violating a Michigan “jury tampering” statute that makes it a crime for anyone to “willfully attempt[] to influence the decision of a juror in any case by argument or persuasion, other than as part of the proceedings in open court in the trial of the case.” Incredibly, neither the trial court nor the first-level appellate court thought there were any free-speech concerns with Mr. Wood’s conviction.

The Cato Institute has therefore filed a brief with the Michigan Court of Appeals, urging it to reverse Mr. Wood’s conviction. Under binding Supreme Court precedent, “[g]overnment regulation of speech is content based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.” Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2227 (2015). That is exactly the case here; the statute specifically targets “argument or persuasion” on a specific subject matter — jury decision-making. The statute is therefore subject to strict scrutiny, which it cannot possibly satisfy. Although states certainly have a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of jury trials, this statute sweeps far beyond this legitimate purpose and implicates massive volumes of speech entitled to the highest degree of First Amendment protection. Moreover, the state has no interest — compelling or otherwise — in preventing Mr. Wood from discussing the history of jury independence, including the jury’s right to engage in “nullification.”

Mr. Wood’s conviction is all the more troubling because the jury trial itself is dwindling to the point of a practical nullity — 97% of federal criminal convictions today are obtained through plea bargaining, not trials. We have, in effect, traded the transparency, accountability, and legitimacy that arises from public jury trials for the simplicity and efficiency of a prosecutor-driven conviction machine. There is no panacea for the jury’s diminishing role in our criminal justice system, but the least that states can do is not exacerbate the situation by singling out for punishment protected speech meant to inform jurors of their rights, obligations, and historical role as the conscience of the community.

April 10th is Equal Pay Day according to the National Committee for Equal Pay. The holiday “symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.”

Unfortunately, Equal Pay Day is a holiday created by people that don’t understand economics. If they did, Americans would celebrate the holiday in January.

Equal Pay Day is based on the gender pay gap, which compares the median woman’s wages to the median man’s wages. The resulting 18-percent-plus difference is often portrayed as attributable to gender-based discrimination.

But the gender pay gap is a flawed measure: comparing median men’s and women’s wages doesn’t tell you anything useful. In order to make a fair comparison, researchers must compare male and female workers that have similar characteristics beyond being the middle worker in the income distribution.

Important characteristics include age, education, years of experience, job title, employer, and location. A recent Glassdoor study controlled for these characteristics and the gender pay gap fell from nearly twenty-five percent to around five percent.

Of course, if the remaining five percent gap represents discrimination that is a problem. But the Glassdoor study didn’t control for all relevant characteristics, and it’s likely the adjusted gender pay gap would fall a bit further if it did.

Americans should observe Equal Pay Day part-way through January, assuming the Glassdoor study is correct. Observing Equal Pay Day in January would paint a more accurate picture of the state of gender pay equity.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed on China’s trade practices, Fareed Zakaria concludes by saying: “Getting tough on China is a case where I am willing to give Trump’s unconventional methods a try. Nothing else has worked.” In my view, he gets a number of things wrong in this piece, but he does raise some important issues, and it’s a good jumping off point for a discussion of how China actually behaves in its trade policy, and what the possible responses are.

Zakaria’s main claim is that, “on one big, fundamental point, President Trump is right: China is a trade cheat.” Many people say this, or some variation of it. But what exactly does it mean to be a “trade cheat”?

What Zakaria seems to have in mind is that China is breaking some World Trade Organization (WTO) rules or taking actions that undermine them. Zakaria refers to the recent Section 301 report by USTR, which he says finds evidence that China “uses formal and informal means to block foreign firms from competing in China’s market.” According to this report, he explains, “the Chinese government has increased its intervention in the economy, particularly taking aim at foreign companies,” and he notes that “[a]ll of this directly contradicts Beijing’s commitments when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.” Later, he elaborates on the Chinese behavior at issue:

Look at the Chinese economy today. It has managed to block or curb the world’s most advanced and successful technology companies, from Google to Facebook to Amazon. Foreign banks often have to operate with local partners who add zero value — essentially a tax on foreign companies. Foreign manufacturers are forced to share their technology with local partners who then systematically reverse engineer some of the same products and compete against their partners. And then there is cybertheft. The most extensive cyberwarfare waged by a foreign power against the United States is done not by Russia but by China. The targets are American companies, whose secrets and intellectual property are then shared with Chinese competitors.

The difficulty here is that some of this behavior violates WTO rules, while some may not, as WTO rules don’t cover everything. There’s a good case to be made that the forced technology transfer imposed on foreign investors does violate the rules; but some of the cybertheft issues may not be covered.

For the behavior that is covered by WTO rules, the answer is easy: File more WTO complaints. As my colleague Huan Zhu and I have argued, WTO complaints against China are pretty effective. The system is far from perfect, and sometimes governments do not comply immediately and fully, but overall it works and China complies as well as other governments do.

But what about areas that are not covered by the rules? Can China be “cheating” in a more general sense, even if it is not breaking any specific rules, by not behaving “fairly”? One key area, which Zakaria does not mention, is state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which China has a lot of and which often don’t behave in a market-oriented way. Unfortunately, the WTO does not have extensive rules on SOEs. The best approach here is to add new trade rules on SOEs, so as to require these entities to behave in a manner consistent with commercial principles. The Trans Pacific Partnership has some detailed rules on this, and although China was not a member of the TPP, there was the possibility that it would join, or that the SOE rules in there could be used as a model for applying such rules to China in a different trade agreement. But the Trump administration pulled out of the TPP, and the opportunity for the administration to push this in relation to China may have been lost for now.

A similar issue is that China’s tariffs are higher than U.S. tariffs, which is something the Trump administration has complained about. This is true, but it’s within WTO rules. The reason China’s tariffs are higher is that China was fairly poor during the period (1986-1999) when it was negotiating to join the WTO, and therefore it was allowed to take on fewer commitments in some areas. As part of its WTO commitments, China did agree to lower its tariffs from existing levels, but not by as much as wealthier countries had done over the years in a series of trade negotiating rounds.

Since then, of course, China has become wealthier, although it is not nearly as wealthy as the United States. There is a case for China lowering its tariffs further now, but the way to pursue that would be another negotiation. Keep in mind that although China had fewer commitments on tariff reduction, it did take on additional commitments in other areas (so-called “WTO-plus” commitments), so a negotiation of this sort might involve a mix of adding new obligations on China and removing some of the existing ones. That’s probably the most politically viable approach to this issue.

Putting all this together, there should be two components to efforts to address China’s behavior in trade policy: (1) File more WTO complaints, and (2) sit down with China to negotiate new rules (on issues not yet covered, and so that China takes on more liberalization commitments in the areas that are covered). Both of these will work better if the U.S. joins with its trading partners in a coordinated effort. 

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. It would be a lot of work. But Zakaria is missing the mark when he says, “Previous administrations exerted pressure privately, worked within the system and tried to get allies on board, with limited results.” When previous administrations brought WTO complaints, the results were usually pretty good. But there were a lot of possible complaints that were not filed, and the negotiating efforts were fairly limited. Perhaps there were reasons for this, such as a reluctance to press China on trade because the U.S. wanted China’s help on foreign policy issues. But it sounds like now the Trump administration is elevating trade concerns to the fore. If so, there are plenty of opportunities to press China within the system, or to expand and improve that system. 

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.”

 and:

 “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.

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