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A new study at Downsizing Government looks at low-income housing aid. Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute examines the history of federal aid and discusses problems with current policies, particularly rental subsidies and public housing.

One problem is that housing aid is costly to taxpayers. The federal government spent $30 billion on rental subsidies (Section 8 vouchers) and almost $6 billion on public housing in 2016.

Another problem is that housing aid and related rules are costly to urban communities. Howard argues that federal interventions undermine neighborhoods, encourage dependency, and create disincentives for long-term maintenance and improvements in housing.

In urban politics, there are frequent calls for “affordable housing.” But Howard says that it is a myth that markets cannot provide decent housing for people at all income levels. He discusses the vast private housing investment in the decades prior to the 1930s, which was a time of rapid growth in America’s big cities.

The problem today is that government rules and regulations inflate housing costs, which is the topic of an upcoming study by Cato’s housing expert, Vanessa Calder.

What should Ben Carson do? The new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should heed Howard’s advice and work to cut federal subsidies. Carson should also follow through on his conviction that HUD imposes too many “social engineering” rules on local governments.

Vanessa provides further policy guidance for Carson here, and she discusses an example of the sort of top-down HUD mandate that should be on the chopping block here.

Howard’s vast scholarship on housing policy is here.

More information on HUD is here. I would particularly recommend HUD Scandals. My god, Ronald Reagan’s HUD was appalling.

In recent House testimony, I said that energy subsidies should be repealed because they distort business decision making. They induce firms to invest in activities that do not make sense in the marketplace.

That appears to be the case with Southern Company’s “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. The plant is far behind schedule and massively over budget—a first-class boondoggle. The Wall Street Journal reports that the estimated cost has soared from $3 billion to $7.1 billion. (This says the original estimate was $2.2 billion). The utility’s customers could be in for a $4 billion rate hike.

What the WSJ leaves out is that the Kemper plant received federal subsidies and Obama administration support, which may have tilted company executives in favor of the wasteful project instead of a far cheaper natural gas plant. The project had been scheduled to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and tax credits, although I understand that some of the bounty was later rescinded.

Federal subsidies covered only part of the original estimated cost, but they were likely the tail that wagged the dog. When subsidies induce private businesses to invest in dubious projects, the damage comes not just from wasting taxpayer dollars, but also from misallocating private investment funds.

More on energy subsidies, here, here, and here. More on Kemper, here, here, and here.

President Trump’s administration has rescinded the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter requiring that public schools let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. It was probably the right thing do, and there was nothing “shameful” about the decision: equally decent people can, and do, have competing views of what is good.

There is no reason, of course, to believe anything other than that the Obama administration’s initial guidance was well-intended, driven by a desire to see transgender students empowered to make decisions for themselves about who they are. It is also absolutely a legitimate worry that school districts might discriminate against transgender students.

But equally decent people could feel very uncomfortable sharing a bathroom or changing room with someone of the opposite biological sex — sex-based privacy has been a time-honored norm — and could also have religious objections to such mixing. What about their rights? There were also legitimate worries about the legality of the order, delivered as a sudden reinterpretation of long-standing regulations.

Finally, societal evolution takes time. It may well be better to let smaller units (states, communities, families) grapple with and adjust to social change than suddenly impose one vision of the good on everyone.

Of course, there may be no solution in a diverse school or district that equally respects the values and desires of all. This is a major reason that school choice is so crucial: it enables families and educators to freely choose the values they want taught and respected, rather than government choosing one side to win and the other to lose.

Alas, some high-profile defenders of the Obama guidance immediately sprang into moral condemnation or hysteria mode, continuing to poison the national debate that has been degenerating for decades, but has seemingly collapsed in the era of Trump. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., condemned the administration’s action as “shameful,” as if it were impossible that any morally-upright person could have a position against federally-forced transgender bathroom access. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten declared, “Reversing this guidance tells trans kids that it’s OK with the Trump administration and the Department of Education for them to be abused and harassed at school for being trans.”

No, the new guidance does not say that. Indeed, the letter announcing it says that “all schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment.” There is not a shred of meaningful evidence that anyone in the Trump administration is trying to essentially declare open season on transgender kids.

There are fine reasons to oppose what the Trump administration has done on bathroom and locker room access in public schools. But there are also perfectly decent reasons to support it — indeed, I think more compelling. Perhaps just as important, it is long past time that we cease with unfair, incendiary, cohesion-shredding rhetoric, and accept that good people can have different opinions than we do.

What better place to start than with the education of our children?

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

A shocking statistic has come to light: Venezuelans lost 19 pounds on average over the past year because of food shortages. 

There was a time when hunger was a near-universal experience. As Kevin D. Williamson put it, “Not long ago, the great dream and aspiration of most of the people walking this Earth was to have enough to eat, for themselves and for their children, and to be liberated from worrying about whether they would eat again tomorrow or the next day.”

Then, something changed. Exchange and specialization helped bring down food prices. A burst of innovations called the Green Revolution led to higher agricultural productivity and decreased food prices even further. Even as the world’s population grew, the market ensured that the supply of food rose to meet growing demand. 

The global numbers are heartening. The share of the world’s population suffering from hunger is shrinking. Despite population growth, the total number of undernourished persons is lower as well. Even those who are food-deprived are less severely malnourished than in the past. Humanity now produces more than enough food to theoretically feed everyone on Earth the recommended 2,000 calories per day.

Hunger was declining in Venezuela too until recently. The percentage of Venezuela’s population suffering from undernourishment fell from 14% in 1991 to “5% or lower” in 2015, the latest year for which the United Nations has data. Since then, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. In a single year, the number of cases of severely undernourished children in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas, doubled

The reason? Venezuela’s socialist economic policies, briefly sustained by fleeting high oil prices, led to hyperinflation and a societal collapse. If Venezuela continues on its present course, hunger is likely to become more widespread. 

We can all be thankful that undernourishment has become rarer globally. But the case of Venezuela demonstrates that progress is not inevitable—suicidal economic policies, like socialism, can rapidly extinguish the prosperity we enjoy. 

“The legacy of the Rio Olympics is a farce,” writes sports columnist Nancy Armour in USA Today. She continues:

The closing ceremony was six months ago Tuesday, and already several of the venues are abandoned and falling apart. The Olympic Park is a ghost town, the lights have been turned off at the Maracana and the athlete village sits empty…. the billions that were wasted, the venues that so quickly became white elephants, the crippling bills for a city and country already struggling to make ends meet…

She notes that more and more cities are realizing that Olympic games are glamorous but not economically sound. I made that point two years ago when Boston withdrew its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics:

Columnist Anne Applebaum predicted a year ago that future Olympics would likely be held only in “authoritarian countries where the voters’ views will not be taken into account” — such as the two bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Fortunately, Boston is not such a place. The voters’ views can be ignored and dismissed for only so long.

The success of the “10 people on Twitter” and the three young organizers of No Boston Olympics should encourage taxpayers in other cities to take up the fight against megaprojects and boondoggles — stadiums, arenas, master plans, transit projects, and indeed other Olympic Games.

I cited then some of the evidence about the impact of the Olympics on host cities:

The critics knew something that the Olympic enthusiasts tried to forget: Megaprojects like the Olympics are enormously expensive, always over budget, and disruptive. They leave cities with unused stadiums and other waste.

E.M. Swift, who covered the Olympics for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years, wrote on the Cognoscenti blog a few years ago that Olympic budgets “always soar.”

“Montreal is the poster child for cost overruns, running a whopping 796 percent over budget in 1976, accumulating a deficit that took 30 years to repay. In 1996 the Atlanta Games came in 147 percent over budget. Sydney was 90 percent over its projected budget in 2000. And the 
Athens Games cost $12.8 billion, 60 percent over what the government projected.”

Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, the world’s leading expert on megaprojects, and his co-author Allison Stewart found that Olympic Games differ from other such large projects in two ways: They always exceed their budgets, and the cost overruns are significantly larger than other megaprojects. Adjusted for inflation, the average cost overrun for an Olympics is 179 percent.

In the latest edition of Cato Policy Report, Flyvbjerg examined “the ‘iron law of megaprojects’: over budget, over time, over and over again.”

Brazil has great resources, great ambitions, and great problems, including a vast corruption scandal that has taken down numerous public officials including President Dilma Rousseff. But the lives of its people will not improve through grandiose projects. Brazil needs financial reform, tax and regulatory reform, fiscal reform, and more. Megaprojects are not the road to prosperity.

The Constitution’s Framers had one primary thought in mind when they set out to draft the Constitution: Securing ordered liberty so that the people could pursue happiness. To accomplish this goal, they drew on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu to design a political system that divided power between the new national government and the states (federalism) and also among the federal branches (separation of powers). The separation of powers would be the front line of defense from an overreaching government, because it would allow each branch to “check” and “balance” the other—thereby limiting the ability of any one department to accumulate too much power over the people.

Yet the modern administrative state has been allowed to evade many of the Constitution’s structural protections for liberty. It has become what some have called the “fourth branch of government,” combining all three functions—legislative, executive, and judicial—into one body that does not have to jump through the Framers’ hoops. National Restaurant Association v. Department of Labor is a prime example of how far down the rabbit hole we have come from the Framers’ original vision.

In 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a section 203(m) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) did not prevent employers from instituting a policy of tip-pooling (redistributing tips from individual employees to other workers) when the employer did not take a tip-credit (where the employer uses an employee’s tips to satisfy the FLSA’s minimum-wage requirement). The court held that the statute’s “plain meaning” did not explicitly forbid this practice, so it was legal.

The Department of Labor (DOL) didn’t like the court’s opinion, however, and in 2011 conducted a “rulemaking” that would reinterpret the FLSA to say that tip-pooling was illegal in certain situations—even when the employer didn’t take a tip-credit. The National Restaurant Association and several other groups challenged the rulemaking, arguing that an executive agency can’t ignore federal-court precedent and unilaterally rewrite a statute that is unambiguous. The district court agreed and quickly struck down the rulemaking. But the Ninth Circuit ignored its own 2010 precedent and upheld the DOL’s new statutory interpretation.

Undeterred, the groups sought en banc review (where all of the judges in the circuit rehear a case), but—over a strongly worded dissent, calling the circuit court’s reasoning “entirely alien to our system of laws”—the court declined the request. Cato has now filed an amicus brief supporting the National Restaurant Association’s petition for Supreme Court review.

We argue the circuit court’s opinion raises serious separation-of-powers concerns by allowing the DOL to exercise legislative power when it essentially rewrote an unambiguous FLSA provision. Moreover, upholding the new DOL regulation effectively overturned a federal court’s precedent in direct circumvention of the judicial branch’s duty to “say what the law is.” The Court should take this case and show that the Constitution’s separation of powers does not allow such judicial enabling of executive mischief. Administrative agencies simply cannot take it upon themselves to ignore or rewrite the law.

 

As we approach Cato’s 40th anniversary, if you’re interested in knowing a little more about the origin and history of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, which I founded 28 years ago, take a look at Mimesis Law’s lengthy interview of me that they posted just this morning.

A year ago they interviewed Wally Olson, who put them on my trail. This morning’s interview is actually more of a “life story”—from a boyhood in rural America, trapping muskrats and beaver and starting my school’s first rock-‘n’-roll band, through the twists and turns that brought me to today and the center. But in the course of telling the tale I discuss the intellectual history that led to the center’s creation and informed its mission And along the way I discuss some of the issues we’re still wrestling with. At the least, you’ll get a few laughs!

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aims for recipients to “make healthy food choices within a limited budget.” SNAP is supposed to “permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet.”

However, the lofty goals of federal programs often differ from the actual results. It turns out that about $15 billion of SNAP benefits are for junk food. Apparently, recipients are not making the nutritious and healthy choices that the government promised.

SNAP, or food stamp, benefits totaled $67 billion in 2016. Food stamps can be used to buy just about any edible item in grocery stores other than alcohol, vitamins, and hot food. But exactly what is being purchased by the program’s 44 million recipients has been mainly shrouded in secrecy—until now.

A November study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally shed light on food stamp purchases. The study examined detailed data for SNAP and non-SNAP shoppers for one large food retailer over a one-year period.

The study found that SNAP shoppers bought slightly more junk food than non-SNAP shoppers. For example, 9.25 percent of total purchases by SNAP shoppers were for “sweetened beverages” such as cola, which compared to 7.1 percent for non-SNAP shoppers. At the same time, SNAP shoppers spent relatively less on nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables.

For SNAP shoppers, “sweetened beverages,” “prepared desserts,” “salty snacks,” “candy,” and “sugar” accounted for 22.6 percent of purchases. These junk food items thus accounted for $15 billion of SNAP purchases in 2016, if the study is representative of all SNAP purchases.

SNAP is a bloated program, and cutting out junk food would be one way to reduce costs. The program was created to tackle hunger, but Harvard University’s Robert Paarlberg noted that on a typical day less than 1 percent of households now face “very low food security.” That low figure contrasts with the 17 percent of U.S. households that currently receive food stamps.

The main food-related health problem for low-income households today is not hunger, but obesity. CDC data show that people with low incomes are more obese than people with high incomes, on average. In general, low-income Americans are suffering not from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food.

Ending SNAP’s junk food subsidies would likely cut demand for the program and reduce taxpayer costs. If policymakers decided that food stamps could only be used for items such as fruits and vegetables, fewer people would use the program, which would be a good thing.

An even better reform would be to end federal involvement in food stamps. Each state could then decide on the overall level of benefits it wanted, and on whether taxpayers should be subsidizing cola, candy, crackers, and cookies.

For more on food stamps, see here and here.

As any pedantic patriot can tell you, there’s really no such thing as “Presidents’ Day”–the official name for the federal holiday we celebrated on Monday is “Washington’s Birthday.” And it wasn’t the first president’s actual birthday, which is today, February 22.

Washington had his faults, but, especially when compared to most of those who followed him, he provided an admirable model of probity and restraint. The teenage Washington copied in his own hand 110 precepts on etiquette: “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” and, as I noted recently, they make for a pretty stark contrast with the deportment of 1600 Pennsylvania’s current occupant. So, in honor of Washington’s (actual) Birthday, contemplate the distance between our first president and our 45th, with a selection of Washington’s “Rules”–and Trump’s:

Washington’s “Rules”:

Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.

The U.S. must immediately stop all flights from EBOLA infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our “borders.” Act fast!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2014

Speak not when you Should hold your Peace

The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016

do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein.

If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take - AUTISM.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2014

Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Carefull to keep your Promise.

Trump: “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one” (campaign rally, North Dakota).

Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.

Trump: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” (on Carly Fiorina)

In writing or Speaking, give to every Person his due Title According to his Degree & the Custom of the Place.

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2017

When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.

…this one’s just too easy.

wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.

Hillary Clinton has announced that she is letting her husband out to campaign but HE'S DEMONSTRATED A PENCHANT FOR SEXISM, so inappropriate!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 27, 2015

Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparag[e]ment of any.

“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous…. I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting? It’s horrible.”–Trump on Sen. Ted Cruz’s father

Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in publick or in Private… & in reproving Shew no Sign of Cholar but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.

.@katyperry Katy, what the hell were you thinking when you married loser Russell Brand. There is a guy who has got nothing going, a waste!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2014

When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.

Trump: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you” (on Sen. John McCain)

Be not immodest in urging your Freinds to Discover a Secret.

Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2016

Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. 

How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s “birth certificate” died in plane crash today. All others lived

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2013

A Man o[ug]ht not to value himself of his Atchievements, or rare Qua[lities of wit;

Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure,it's not your fault

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2013

…much less of his rich]es 

Trump: “part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich”

Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Ce[les]tial fire Called Conscience.

Trump: I’m really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is such — I do get good ratings, you have to admit that” (last Friday’s press conference)

As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Mr. Trump and his advisers see the U.S. goods trade deficit as an indicator of U.S. economic weakness.” 

Yes, they do. But why?  As the graph clearly shows, the real gross output of U.S. manufacturing rises when the goods trade deficit (both measured in 2009 dollars) is also rising.  When trade deficits fall, so does U.S. manufacturing.  Sinking industries need fewer imported parts and materials, and their unemployed workers can’t afford imports.

Measured in 2009 dollars, the goods trade deficit fell from $863.4 billion in 2006 to $525.2 billion in 2009.  Peter Navarro, the President’s liberal protectionist trade adviser, would apparently call that good news.  The rest of us called it The Great Recession.

Since at least World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by the necessity of securing scarce oil supplies. And for more than 30 years, it has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Many of the defining moments in U.S. foreign policy since then– including the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, the 1980s ‘tanker war’ and even the 1991 Persian Gulf War – have been shaped by this commitment, perhaps most clearly articulated by President Carter in 1980:

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

Yet recent years have seen profound changes in the global oil market. Growth in U.S. domestic production – a result of the shale gas revolution – has returned the United States to the top of global hydrocarbon producer rankings for the first time in decades. A more general shift in production from global south to north has made the United States substantially less reliant on Middle Eastern sources of oil, and more on close neighbors like Canada.

These changes, combined with dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power raise a key question: should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf?

On February 27th, Cato will host a book forum to discuss the recently published book Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil. The book addresses many of these key questions, pulling together an interdisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security.

The book’s essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.

The discussion will feature the book’s editors, Charles Glaser, Professor of Political Science and Director, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the George Washington University and Rosemary Kelanic, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Williams College. Joining them will be Kenneth Vincent, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, George Washington University and John Glaser, Cato’s Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies.

The event promises a fascinating discussion on the energy security roots of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and the future of the U.S. commitment to the region’s oil supplies. You can register for the event here.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 determined to revive the stagnant British economy with market-based reforms. During her 11 years as prime minister, she deregulated, cut marginal tax rates, repealed currency exchange controls, and tamed militant labor unions.

However, it was privatization that became Thatcher’s most important and enduring economic legacy. She popularized the word privatization and oversaw the sale to the public of British Airways, British Telecom, British Steel, and British Gas, and other major businesses.

Spurred by the success of Thatcher’s reforms, privatization swept the world. Governments in more than 100 countries moved thousands of state-owned businesses to the private sector. Since the Iron Lady’s campaign to give ownership of Britain’s economy back to the people, more than $3.3 trillion of government businesses have been privatized around the world.

I take a look back at Thatcher’s privatization reforms in this month’s Cato Journal.

What is the relevance for U.S. policymaking today? Many types of businesses that Britain privatized are still partly or fully owned by governments in this country, including airports, seaports, postal services, air traffic control, electric utilities, and passenger rail. So there is an opportunity here for our leaders to spur growth and innovation by adopting Thatcher’s playbook.

But privatization is important for more than just the economic benefits. Thatcher said privatization is also about “reclaiming territory for freedom” and ensuring that “the state’s power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced.”

In toasting Margaret Thatcher in Washington, February 27, 1981, President Ronald Reagan said “everywhere one looks these days the cult of the state is dying.” Thatcher’s privatization program would help make that promise come true.

The photo shows the free-market friends at the White House, February 28, 1981.

There is considerable debate in both academic and policy circles about the utility of nuclear weapons. Of what use are they? Some say just about all nuclear weapons are good for is self defense. States that possess them can more easily deter attack or invasion. Others argue that possessing nuclear weapons also gives states added leverage to get their way in international politics. In this conception, nuclear weapons add to the ability to coerce other states. Not only can they deter actions we don’t like, but they can help compel others to take actions that we do like.

A new and important book, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy by Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, evaluates the empirical record to test whether or not nuclear weapons aid in coercive diplomacy. Their findings are clear: no, nuclear weapons do not have much coercive utility. States with nukes don’t have more leverage in settling territorial disputes, they’re not more likely to initiate military challenges, they are not more likely to escalate ongoing disputes, and they are not more successful in blackmailing rivals. 

This has significant implications for U.S. foreign policy. What do these findings suggest we should expect from our nuclear-armed rivals, like Russia and China? Does it make sense to undertake preventive military action against nascent nuclear weapons programs in countries like North Korea? If Iran were to get nuclear weapons once the time-limited restrictions in the JCPOA expire (as critics of the deal suggest), how would that influence its behavior in the region?

The authors are coming to the Cato Institute on March 7 to discuss their book and explain their theoretical and empirical findings. Matthew Kroenig will be a discussant and offer comments on the book. You can register to attend the event here

During Trump’s surprising presidential campaign, pundits became fond of pointing out that Trump’s supporters took his often-shocking rhetoric seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took his rhetoric literally, but not seriously. Today, however, it is obvious that one should take Trump’s words both seriously and literally. In his first month Trump has been busy matching actions to words, temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and ordering sanctuary cities to detain illegal immigrants, launching work on the U.S.-Mexican border wall, and preparing to lift the ban on the CIA black sites where the United States carried out “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

For those who voted for Trump this first month must surely be a heady viewing experience. For much of the country, however, Trump’s efforts are taking things in the wrong direction, as even his most extreme campaign proposals become reality. From the perspective of the polls, Trump’s first month has met decidedly mixed reviews.

On immigration, for example, Trump signed a short-lived executive order threatening to halt federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that offer protection to illegal immigrants if they do not detain illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities. And before signing two executive orders directing the construction of the U.S.-Mexican border wall, Trump argued that the United States is “in the middle of a crisis border” and that “A nation without borders is not a nation.”

Most Americans see things differently. When asked about illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, a CBS News Poll this month found that 74% of the public thinks they should be allowed to stay, while just 22% thinks they should be required to leave. 61% believe illegal immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship. The same poll found that 59% oppose Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with 37% favoring it.

On the question of torture Trump faces a polarized public. Just yesterday Trump reaffirmed his belief in the utility of torture, telling an interviewer that the United States must “fight fire with fire” and that “Absolutely I feel it works.” Many Americans, however, are not so sure. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center finds that 49% of the public does not believe there are any circumstances that justify torture; while 48% believes that there are some circumstances that do. When asked about specific interrogation techniques, Americans have tended to be even less supportive. Gallup polls from 2005, for example, found 82% opposed water boarding, 79% opposed keeping prisoners naked and chained in uncomfortable positions. 62% felt it was wrong to threaten to transfer a prisoner to a country know for using torture – relevant given Trump’s order to reestablish overseas CIA black sites, which were used for just such purposes.

On the question of banning Muslims from entering the United States Trump’s support is far from overwhelming. Earlier this month a Quinnipiac University poll found that 48% support suspending immigration from “terror prone regions” compared to 42% who oppose doing so. This represents a slip from the summer of 2016, when a NBC News/Survey Monkey poll taken days after the Orlando nightclub attack found 50% support for Trump’s call for a ban, with 46% opposing.

It is too early to make bold predictions about the popularity of Trump’s policies down the road or what the polls today might tell us about how the polls will look two or four years from now. Even so, though Trump is enjoying the rush of power that comes with the Oval Office, his administration would do well to take these poll numbers both literally and seriously. Racking up policy “wins” that don’t have majority support is a sure way to lose political capital in Washington and a terrible strategy for getting reelected.

This goes double for Trump, given his historically low approval and favorability ratings. Trump is the first elected president with an approval rating under 50% (42% in the latest Gallup poll) and the latest Pew Research Center poll has his net favorable/unfavorable rating at minus 16%. Trump, with his mobile phone and millions of Twitter followers, may believe he can use the bully pulpit to win hearts and minds. In this, however, he will learn that he is sadly mistaken. Scholars of presidential communication have long since shown that presidents with approval ratings below 50% find their ability to move public opinion vastly diminished, if not completely destroyed.

At his current approval levels, it doesn’t matter how many tweets Trump fires off, he is unlikely to turn opposition toward unpopular programs into support. On the other hand, Trump will fare much better as he moves on to policies that enjoy majority support to begin with like his infrastructure package, tax cuts for the middle class, spending more for defense, or improving veterans’ services.

In the final analysis, assessments of Trump’s presidency won’t hinge primarily on attitudes towards specific policies but on the public’s judgments of the broader sweep of economic and social trends over his time in office. And for that we shall have to wait. 

Libertarians often point out that Progressive-era President Woodrow Wilson (in office 1913-1921), together with his other bad qualities, was thoroughly awful on the subject of civil rights for black Americans: he re-segregated the federal civil service, demoted and snubbed black federal officials and dignitaries, and wrote favorably about the Ku Klux Klan, even helping bring in D.W. Griffith’s Klan-fest “The Birth of a Nation” as the first motion picture to be screened in the White House. Soon a revived version of the Klan had picked up enormous momentum, peaking by the early 1920s at a membership of millions, hostile not just to blacks but to Catholics, Jews, urban intellectuals, and cosmopolitan influences in general.

Then the spell broke. In the second half of the 1920s the Klan’s ranks collapsed, and by 1930 it was but a shadow of its former self, down from millions to perhaps tens of thousands. What happened?

Many things happened, but one of them was the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, who served from 1923 to 1929. The Coolidge Presidential Foundation recently published a piece by University of Baltimore president Kurt Schmoke, formerly mayor of Baltimore, entitled “The Little Known History of Coolidge and Civil Rights.” As Schmoke makes clear, the Vermont-born president’s record was a shining spot in an era that otherwise reflected little credit on American race relations. 

Consider, for example, the practice of lynchingwidespread and informally tolerated around much of the nation. With the sole exception of the war year of 1917, which had 36, America saw at least 50 lynchings in each year between 1883 and 1922, the last year before Coolidge took office; the recent peak had come at war’s end with 70 lynchings in 1919 followed by a drop to 51 by 1922.  But 1923, the year Coolidge took office, saw a drop to 29, and never again was the number to rise above the mid-20s; in his final year, 1929, there were 7. In the 1930s, Congress debated a national anti-lynching law, but Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt was notably tepid toward the idea. Not until 1936 was the number of lynchings consistently reduced to below 10 a year.

Coolidge took a particular interest in the cause of Howard University in Washington, D.C. And he spoke out on behalf of the interests of blacks, the foreign born, and other minorities on many other occasions as well, grounding his views in a civic patriotism that held its distance from nationalist passions of blood and soil. Writes Schmoke: 

Coolidge gave his most pointed rebuke to the Klan spirit during his 1925 speech to the American Legion in Omaha, where he said “whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years of the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of to-day is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.”

Something to think about on this President’s Day.

It’s nice to combine a long weekend with a chance to pick up some bargain kitchenware; but outside of that, what’s the point of Presidents’ Day? Modern presidents are ubiquitous and inescapable: hectoring us from above every treadmill at the gym and meddling in every area of American life, from where we get our groceries to which bathroom we’re allowed to use. It’s not as if we’ll forget they exist without setting aside a special day to salute them. Besides, neither the individual presidents we inflict on ourselves every four to eight years nor the institution itself is worth celebrating.

It’s some consolation, then, that, at the federal level at least, there’s no such thing as “Presidents’ Day.” The official designation for the third Monday in February is “Washington’s Birthday.” That’s been the case since one of our less meddlesome presidents, bewhiskered nonentity Rutherford B. Hayes, signed the holiday into law in 1879. 

Granted, it hasn’t been observed on the first president’s actual birthday, February 22, since the Nixon administration. With the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress sacrificed accuracy in order to give Americans the benefit of three-day weekends, stipulating that “Washington’s Birthday” would be observed on February’s third Monday.

Still, every so often, some civic-minded busybody insists that it’s presidents—or worse, the presidency in general—that we should be commemorating. In the late ‘90s, for example, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill (cosponsored by Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle) to redesignate “the legal public holiday of Washington’s Birthday as Presidents’ Day … in recognition of the importance of the institution of the Presidency and the contributions that Presidents have made to our nation’s development and the principles of freedom and democracy.”

Bah, humbug. Our presidents—especially the “great” ones—have more often trampled those principles than upheld them. When scholars rank the presidents, their “Top 10” lists typically include a Murderers’ Row of chief executives whose “contributions” to freedom and democracy include Japanese internment, Indian removal, unconstitutional wars, illegal spying, and the imprisonment of peaceful dissenters.

And while there’s no denying “the importance of the institution,” what freedom and self-government we still enjoy persists in spite, not because of, our presidential system. In a pioneering 1990 article, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” the political scientist Juan Linz argued that presidential systems—those that feature a powerful executive, directly elected by the people and serving for a fixed term—are prone to catastrophic breakdowns and degeneration into autocratic rule. By combining the roles of head of state and head of government in one figure, such systems encourage presidents to imagine themselves the living embodiment of the popular will. The president “becomes the focus for whatever exaggerated expectations his supporters may harbor,” Linz writes, and in turn may “conflate his supporters with ‘the people’ as a whole.”

Worse still, the rigidity of presidential terms makes it far harder to throw the bums out if they go rogue. Prime ministers serve at the pleasure of parliament and can even be replaced by their own party. But in all of U.S. constitutional history, we’ve never successfully used the impeachment process to remove a president (Nixon quit). Unless he’s catatonic or certifiable, we’re stuck with him for the duration. 

Presidentialism’s perils have been especially apparent throughout Latin America, where populist despots invoke “democracy” in the service of one-man rule. But it’s a flawed scheme wherever it operates. In his 2014 book The Once and Future King, the legal scholar F.H. Buckley found that “presidentialism is significantly and strongly correlated with less political freedom,” and concluded that “what makes America exceptional is that, for more than two hundred years, it has remained free while yet presidential.” Maybe our luck will continue to hold, but that’s no reason to applaud an institution that, all things considered, wasn’t the Founding Fathers’ best work.

There’s a better case for returning to the holiday’s original purpose: recognition of George Washington, a president distinguished by his reluctance to wield power: the proverbial “Man Who Would Not Be King.”

The Constitution “must mark the line of my official conduct,” Washington noted at the beginning of his administration, and frequently demurred when unsure of the extent of his lawful power—even hesitating to launch offensive action against hostile Indian tribes.

He was a model of restraint in his personal conduct as well. As a teenager, Washington copied in his own hand 110 precepts on etiquette: “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of those rules make for an illuminating contrast with the deportment of our current chief executive:

  • Washington’s “Rules”: “Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.”

       Trump: “If I win, all of the bad things happening in the U.S. will be rapidly reversed!”
 

  • Washington’s “Rules”: “Be not immodest in urging your friends to discover a secret.”

       Trump: “check out sex tape”
 

  • Washington’s “Rules”: “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.”

       Trump: “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the…”  er, you know.

Henry Adams famously remarked that the descent from “President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.” He didn’t know the half of it. This Monday, on Washington’s Birthday (observed), take a moment to contemplate our long downhill slide—and worry about where we’ll end up.

Two years ago on Presidents’ Day (which is legally Washington’s Birthday) I talked about my book The Libertarian Mind at the National Constitution Center (video). As part of that appearance I wrote about America’s libertarian heritage in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Where better than Philadelphia on Presidents’ Day to talk about liberty and reviving the American tradition of freedom and limited government.

Thomas Jefferson said that when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776, he had no book or pamphlet at hand but simply set down “an expression of the American mind.” With its foundation on the equal and inalienable rights of all people, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration also reflects the libertarian mind.

Indeed, the principles of the Declaration are so closely associated with libertarianism that the Chinese edition of my previous book, Libertarianism: A Primer, features a cover photograph of the famous room in Independence Hall, complete with Windsor chairs and green tablecloths.

Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom. It has, in different form throughout history, inspired people who fought for freedom, dignity, and individual rights — the early advocates of religious tolerance, the opponents of absolute monarchy, the American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, antiwar advocates and anti-imperialists, opponents of National Socialism and communism….

I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution — individual liberty, limited government, and free markets — are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information, a world that Jefferson or Madison could not have imagined. Libertarianism is the essential framework for a future of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Mainstream media reporting on infrastructure seems to be driven by the lobby groups that are pushing for more federal spending. A Washington Post article today reflects two popular lobbyist themes: “the bridges are falling down” and “the federal government needs to solve the problem.” For today’s story, the Post could have saved the reporter’s salary and simply asked the press office at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) to write it.  

The headline, “More than 55,000 bridges need repair or replacement,” captures the bridges-falling-down theme. That figure is the number of “structurally deficient” bridges, which the Post sources from the ARTBA. But the story does not mention that these bridges (56,007 according to federal data) are 9.1 percent of the nation’s 614,387 bridges, which is the lowest such percentage in 24 years. The chart below shows that the share of bridges in this category fell from 21.7 percent in 1992 to just 9.1 percent in 2016.

That positive trend undermines the scary scenario that most articles want to convene, so it is not mentioned. By the way, “structurally deficient” does not mean unsafe.

The other lobbyist theme is captured by the Post in a quote from Rep. Bill Shuster, “We at the national level have to figure out how we’re going to make these investments.”

No we don’t. Of the 600,000 bridges, 99 percent are owned by state and local governments. Responsibility lies with the owner. The states have a powerful ability to tax, and about half of them have raised their gas taxes in just the past five years to fund highways and bridges. The states can also borrow or privatize to steer additional funds to infrastructure.

The Post story notes the large differences in bridge maintenance across the states. Apparently, 23 percent of bridges in Rhode Island are structurally deficient, but just 2 percent are in Texas. That does not suggest a need for federal intervention, but rather that Rhode Island’s leaders have been negligent.

It also suggests that a new federal spending effort to reduce the number of structurally deficit bridges would be unfair. It would reward irresponsible states such as Rhode Island, and penalize states such as Texas that have already prioritized bridge maintenance.

    

Donald Trump has of late been complaining that the media has been underplaying the threat presented by Islamist terrorism.     

Although one could question whether a hazard that has inflicted six deaths per year in the United States since 9/11 actually represents something that could be called a “threat,” the New York Times in its Sunday, February 5 edition presented on its front page an exercise in terrorism fear-mongering that should surely warm Trump’s heart, if any.

The article, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All” by Rukmini Callimachi seeks in the most ominous tones to demonstrate “How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar.”    

The article does an excellent job at showing how a few ISIS operatives have been trying through internet communication to stir up violence by sympathetic would-be jihadists around the world. However, the evidence from the article includes enough information to indicate that this effort has been an abject, even almost comedic, failure.

The information could have been framed that way, but, one darkly suspects, it might not have made the Sunday front page if it had been.

Callimachi argues that “a pattern has emerged.” In this, a supporter “initially tries to reach Syria, but is either blocked by the authorities in the home country or else turned back from the border.”   

This could be taken to be an indication of the pronounced decline ISIS is experiencing. After all, the group’s whole point and appeal, proclaimed repeatedly for years, is to establish a viable caliphate in the Middle East.

But Callimachi espies a nefarious upside for the vicious group: “Under the instructions of a handler in Syria or Iraq, the person then begins planning an attack at home.” 

The article is centered on an effort by “virtual coaches” in ISIS over no less than 17 months to get the apparent leader of a small band of sympathizers in India to commit some violence in its name. Apparently working with a congenial criminal network in India, one of the coaches was able to supply the distant conspirators with two pistols that proved to be rusty accompanied by 20 essentially irrelevant bullets.     

And only at the end of the article do we find out that the police were able through wiretaps to close down the whole scheme shortly after the boys in the band found they could not fabricate bombs from material surreptitiously supplied by their handler following the instructions he apparently posted on YouTube: “We could not succeed in making powder, as it became jellylike paste,” one lamented. Far from dedicated jihadists, the plotters cooperatively spilled all they knew about the plans and connections to the authorities after they were arrested.  

The article is peppered with similar tales. One guy shoots himself in leg, another was supposed to drive over people but attacks with an ax instead because he didn’t have a driving permit, a third detonates a bomb prematurely killing only himself, and an explosive in a suicide vest proves insufficiently lethal to smash a nearby flowerpot.  

About the only “success” for what Callimachi calls the “cybercoaches” seems to have been the slitting of the throat of an 85-year-old priest in northern France—perhaps the most pointless and thoroughly counterproductive act of terrorism in history. That is, really, really stupid.

The only example of cybercoach work in the United States that is dealt with in any detail in the article is a case in Rochester, NY, in which the 25-year-old Emanuel Lutchman, looking for ways to get to Syria, was encouraged by his ISIS handler to do some local terrorism to demonstrate his devotion to the cause. The idea was to launch a machete attack on a bar on New Year’s eve somehow killing, in the words of his distant, disembodied coach, “1000000s of kuffar”—infidels.

Left out of the article is that Lutchman was rather inadequate for the mission. He had spent most of the previous ten years in prison for various infractions, the first of which was robbing a man of such unimpressive items as his cell phone, baseball hat, bus pass, library card, and cigarettes. He was also mentally ill and was apparently no longer taking his prescribed medication. He had tried to commit suicide several times, most recently by stabbing himself in the stomach. He had no money, job, or resources, and he was given to picking up cigarette butts outside the targeted bar from which he had repeatedly been shooed away by its irritated owner who characterized him as an “aggressive panhandler.”

Lutchman attracted the attention of the FBI when he mindlessly posted favorable commentary about violent jihad and about ISIS on the web, and he soon found himself at the center of a terrorist cell of four. The other three were all FBI operatives. They worked to facilitate his (or his handler’s) addled fantasies, even shelling out the $40 Lutchman didn’t have to buy a machete and other terrorist equipment from a local Walmart.

Any terrorist “threat” presented by the hapless Lutchman and his remote cybercoach, then, was pretty modest. But you’d never know that by reading Callimachi. Or by listening to Trump.

If you did not see President Trump’s press conference yesterday, you might want to watch.  It was quite the spectacle.  His statements on “Buy America” issues may not have been the highlight of the event, but they raise some interesting questions.  Here’s what he said:

We have also taken steps to begin construction of the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipelines. Thousands and thousands of jobs, and put new buy American measures in place to require American steel for American pipelines. In other words, they build a pipeline in this country, and we use the powers of government to make that pipeline happen, we want them to use American steel. And they are willing to do that, but nobody ever asked before I came along. Even this order was drawn and they didn’t say that.

… And I’m reading the order, I’m saying, why aren’t we using American steel? And they said, that’s a good idea, we put it in. 

I mentioned this issue on this blog a couple weeks ago.  As I pointed out then, Trump is saying that he put measures in place to require pipeline companies to use American steel, but the Presidential memo he signed does not, in fact, do this.  Instead, it instructs the Secretary of Commerce, as part of an inter-agency consultation, to “develop a plan” under which pipelines “use materials and equipment produced in the United States, to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law.”

This is a much more limited approach than what he is publicly suggesting. Let’s look at how this general policy is likely to work in practice, if applied. Take the example of the Keystone XL pipeline. Here’s what a Reuters article had to say about this pipeline’s steel:

When U.S. President Donald Trump signed orders to revive two controversial energy pipeline projects this week, he pledged to require new pipelines to use American-made steel, a gesture to workers in the hard-hit industry who helped propel him to power.

But U.S. steelmakers will receive negligible benefit from the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL project, one of the two projects Trump ordered to proceed, because they have limited ability to meet the stringent materials requirements for the TransCanada line.

Meanwhile, in the quiet prairie town of Gascoyne, North Dakota, deer wander among gleaming stacks of steel tubing intended for the Keystone pipeline. The company bought the material years ago when the U.S. debate was raging over whether the project should go ahead.

About half of the pipe was forged in Arkansas, at a plant owned by India’s Welspun. About a quarter came from a Russian-owned plant in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, and the rest came from Italy and India.

So according to this article, while some of the steel for the pipeline is from U.S. sources, U.S. steelmakers could not produce all of the steel that was needed, and therefore TransCanada had to buy it from foreign sources.  As a result, using exclusively American steel was not possible here.  This may violate Trump’s public pronouncements, but according to the terms of the Presidential memo (use American inputs “to the maximum extent possible”), it is likely that the Keystone XL pipeline would be allowed to use this foreign steel.

With all this in mind, where is U.S. trade policy headed?  Is it going to reflect the declarations of policy that Trump makes at press conferences, which take economic nationalism further than we have seen it in a long time?  Or is it going to be more like the carefully worded memos that someone who knows a bit about trade law and policy is writing and having Trump sign, which only go a little beyond our existing protectionism?  There’s a large gap between these two.  In the coming months, we will see who is hired for key positions at the main trade agencies, and we will try to guide them away from the protectionist extreme.

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