Two Very Depressing Charts for President Obama, Two Very Encouraging Charts for America’s Taxpayers

Let’s look at some fiscal data that must be very depressing for President Obama and other advocates of big government.

Which means, of course, that this information must be very good news for American taxpayers!

Here’s a chart looking at annual federal spending since 2000. You’ll notice that spending skyrocketed from 2000-2009 (a time when libertarians were justifiably glum), but look at how the growth of government came to a screeching halt after 2009.

Here are some specific numbers culled from the OMB data and CBO data. In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion.

In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington.

Now let’s look at what happens when government is put on a diet.

I’ve periodically discussed my Golden Rule, which says that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private sector.

And even though we haven’t had impressive growth during the Obama years, there have been modest increases in both nominal GDP as well as inflation-adjusted (real) GDP.

In other words, the Golden Rule has been in effect since 2009. As a result, the burden of government spending, relative to the economy’s productive sector, has been declining.

Here’s another chart that will be very depressing for the President and other statists.

What’s really remarkable is that we’ve seen the biggest drop in the burden of government spending since the end of World War II.

Heck, the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.”

At this point, some readers may be wondering who or what deserves credit for this positive development. I’ll offer a couple of explanations.

The first two points are about why we shouldn’t overstate what’s actually happened.

1. The good news is somewhat exaggerated because we had a huge spike in federal spending in 2009. To use an analogy, it’s easy to lose some weight if you first go on a big eating binge for a couple of years.

2. Some of the fiscal discipline is illusory because certain revenues that flow to the Treasury, such as TARP repayments from banks, actually count as negative spending. I explained this phenomenon when measuring which Presidents have been the biggest spenders.

But there also are some real reasons why we’ve seen genuine spending restraint.

3. The “Tea Party” election of 2010 resulted in a GOP-controlled House that was somewhat sincere about controlling federal outlays.

4. The spending caps adopted as part of the debt limit fight in 2011 have curtailed spending increases as part of the appropriations process.

5. In the biggest fiscal loss President Obama has suffered, we got a sequester that reduced the growth of federal spending.

6. Many states have refused to expand Medicaid, notwithstanding the lure of temporary free money from Uncle Sam.

7. Government shutdown fights may be messy, but they tend to produce a greater amount of fiscal restraint.

And there are surely other reasons to list, including the long-overdue end of seemingly permanent unemployment benefits and falling defense outlays as forces are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

But now for the bad news. All this progress will be wiped out very quickly if there’s not genuine entitlement reform.

The long-run fiscal forecasts, whether from the Congressional Budget Office or from international bureaucracies such as the IMFBIS, and OECD, show that America will become a European-style welfare state over the next couple of decades in the absence of significant changes to programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

So let’s enjoy our temporary victory but work even harder to avert a future fiscal crisis.

Give Diplomacy a Chance in Ukraine

As I discussed in an op-ed published at Al Jazeera America last week, it seems as though the Ukraine crisis is slowly solidifying into a ‘frozen conflict.’ This is bad for everyone:

Allowing the Ukraine crisis to metastasize into a frozen conflict effectively guarantees future conflict in the region. It leaves the government in Kiev with a long-term insurgency within its borders, costing it dearly and inhibiting the greatly needed reform of the Ukrainian state. In addition, it keeps Russia and the West locked in a diplomatic stalemate and sanctions war which benefits no one.

The intrinsic uncertainty of the situation in Eastern Ukraine continues to pose the very real threat of escalation. Last week saw tensions ratchet up as the OSCE reported large convoys of weapon and armor crossing the border, but fears of a new offensive by separatists proved unfounded. Such periods of heightened tension are likely to continue, along with consistent low-level violence which has become the hallmark of the conflict.

Some parts of the U.S. government are also keen to escalate the conflict by providing Ukraine with lethal aid. There is strong pressure from Congress to do so, and Sen. John McCain, widely expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has promised to work closely with his colleagues on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees to arm Ukraine. Although the Obama administration has thus far limited aid to non-lethal and humanitarian supplies, there may be some support for lethal aid within the administration too. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, during his confirmation hearings for Deputy Secretary of State, divulged that the White House is considering lethal aid to Ukraine, and that he believed such aid would discourage further Russian aggression.

Even ignoring the potential of such aid to escalate the situation, it is unlikely to help. Ukraine’s armed forces are weak, requiring substantial reform and retraining. Lethal aid to Ukraine will antagonize Russia while doing nothing to win back the separatist regions.

Ukraine’s other problems are myriad: The country is in major economic trouble, and the Ukrainian political system is characteristically dysfunctional. A high-profile visit to Kiev last week by Vice President Biden was turbulent, with American officials reportedly irate that competing factions cannot agree on the formation of a new government a month after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Ukrainian leaders also recently announced that they would hold a referendum on NATO membership, a move which is both asinine (NATO member states determine membership, not voters) and inflammatory.

At this point, there are few good solutions to the Ukraine crisis. The longer the current ‘ceasefire’ continues, the more likely we are to see escalation. It is increasingly baffling, therefore, that American and European leaders aren’t seeking a political solution to the crisis. No progress was made at the G20 summit in Australia, though leaders employed harsh rhetoric towards Russia. Nor does Ukraine appear to be a priority for the Obama administration, with reports indicating that one reason for Chuck Hagel’s departure as Secretary of Defense was his strong insistence that the White House pay more attention to Russia, which he considers a larger threat than ISIS. But the Wall Street Journal reports that such comments were not well received by the White House, with one official noting: “I can’t imagine us focusing more on Russia.”

Such thinking is short-sighted. As I argue in the article, we must seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Delay will only lead to escalation and further conflict. 

Interpreting Obama’s Immigration Executive Action

President Obama will soon announce an executive action to defer the deportations of somewhere between 1 million and 4.5 million unauthorized immigrants. Those whose deportations are deferred will be eligible for a temporary work permit through a 1987 provision in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Those who support immigration reform note that any executive action by the President will poison the well for reform, making it impossible for Congress to move piecemeal bills to the President’s desk.  Last year, one of the most effective arguments against immigration reform was that President Obama would not enforce the law as written, a prediction that seems to be borne out with this executive action.  The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it the best:

If he does issue an executive order, we hope Republicans don’t fall for his political trap.  He and many Democrats want Republicans to appear to be anti-immigrant.  They want the GOP to dance to the Steve King-Jeff Sessions blow-a-gasket caucus.

To poison the well of reform there actually had to be water in the well to begin with. I’m not convinced there was.  If there was a serious Congressional effort to reform immigration in the immediate future, then the President’s actions here would totally derail it.

Congress will not act to pass immigration reform if they are acting under threat of the President’s executive action – a threat he has wielded since his 2012 Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals.  He brought that threat out frequently in 2014, famously announcing that he would delay any such decision until after the midterms.  If Republicans pass a bill under threat of an executive action or in response to it then they look like they’re kowtowing to the President – an untenable position for any individual Republican to be in.

For Congress to act without looking like it is bending to President Obama’s threat, the specter of executive action would have to be credibly removed.  But at this juncture, the President cannot credibly remove his threat of an executive action which means that Republicans in Congress won’t act to reform immigration.

The only conceivable way to remove that threat is for the GOP to block the President’s actions through the budget process.  If the well was not poisoned before that, it probably would be after a nasty budget battle to defund this executive action.  If the executive order is blocked and the well is poisoned due to that nasty battle, then we are right back where we were without any change in immigration enforcement policy.

The President knows that many Republicans in Congress will react to this executive action as a bull would react to the waving of a red flag by a matador:  they will charge.  Obama the matador is banking on that reaction to cement the image that the Republicans are the enemies of immigration reform and the Democrats are friendly to that cause.  However, that does not mean President Obama is solely to blame.  The Republicans in Congress could control their reaction and not charge that red flag, instead charting a different legislative course to nullify the President’s actions without seeming to oppose immigration.  What is that path?

Republicans could override President Obama’s actions by passing piecemeal immigration reform bills that nullify the executive orders but also permanently reform the system in some conservative ways.  Congress could add in provisions that will make their version of immigration reform veto proof.  Republicans could create a larger and less regulated guest worker visa program for migrants of all skill levels without having to cater to union demands, thus destroying the incentive for future unlawful immigration.  Combining that with a conservative version of the DREAM Act or a resurrected KIDS Act would make such a bill veto-proof despite the exclusion of left-wing groups from crafting the legislation.  Because Republicans control Congress, they could exclude every left-wing interest group from the debate on Capitol Hill.

There are two major downsides to this approach.  First, the Republican Congress might instead combine enforcement with some modest legalization and thus fail to address the problem of our restrictive immigration system that actually encourages unauthorized immigration in the first place.  Second, the Republicans might not be able to act together after the executive order is issued.  They might ex ante commit to passing a bill but after the executive order is issued they might change their strategy to one of pure opposition.

A bill would likely legalize far more unauthorized immigrants than the President’s executive action.  If the numbers reported are accurate, this executive action would temporarily defer the deportations of only about 40 percent of unauthorized immigrants while a legislative legalization could cover many more.

The best possible policy outcome is if Congress were to use this opportunity to seriously debate and pass some of the conservative proposals on immigration reform.  The President’s executive action is temporary and can be overturned at whim.  Congress, on the other hand, can offer a permanent solution with far broader appeal and impact.

If the Congress is not likely to seriously debate and pass immigration reform this term, the President’s executive action does not poison the well and would improve immigration policy from a pure policy perspective (I’ll discuss the Constitution below).  If Congress is likely to take up the issue, then this executive action will stymie real reform unless Republicans can channel their opposition into passing some of their own reform bills.

The Constitution

Whether the President’s actions will be constitutional is the thorniest important question surrounding this issue.  The big debate is whether executive prosecutorial discretion in this case rises to the level of nullification of the law.  If Obama’s actions do rise to the level of nullification, then they are unconstitutional.  But if his actions fall short of nullification, then his actions are likely to be constitutional.  On this issue, I defer to my brilliant colleagues who are experts in constitutional law.

Here is a good summary of the legal issues.  The conclusion that that document is worth quoting in its entirety (footnotes excluded):

Regardless of whether it is characterized as “prosecutorial discretion” or “enforcement discretion,” immigration officers are generally seen as having wide latitude in determining when,  how, and even whether to pursue apparent violations of the INA. This latitude is similar to that possessed by prosecutors in the criminal law enforcement context and enforcement officials in  other federal agencies. Whether and how to constrain this discretion has been a recurring issue for some Members of Congress, particularly in light of the June 2011 DHS memorandum on prosecutorial discretion and the more recent DACA initiative. While some Members have expressed support for the DACA initiative, or called for expanded use of prosecutorial discretion by immigration authorities in other contexts, others have sought to prohibit DHS from granting deferred action or extended voluntary departure to removable aliens except in narrow circumstances, or to “nullify” particular policies regarding prosecutorial discretion that have been articulated by the Obama Administration.

The extent to which Congress can constrain the Administration’s exercise of discretion in the DACA context, in particular, may depend on whether a reviewing court characterizes the  underlying authority for the implementation of the program as constitutionally or statutorily based. Congress has broad authority to restrict discretionary acts taken pursuant to statutory delegations, while arguably limited authority, under the doctrine of Separation of Powers, to restrict the President’s exercise of constitutionally based discretion. In addition, the degree of intrusion into executive enforcement decisions may also impact a court’s review of any congressional response. For example, legal precedent suggests that Congress probably cannot directly limit the President’s exercise of discretion by requiring that the executive branch initiate enforcement actions against particular individuals. On the other hand, Congress would appear to have considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers, including by “indicat[ing] with precision the measures available to enforce the” INA, or by prohibiting DHS from considering certain factors in setting enforcement priorities.

However, the existing judicial presumption that “an agency’s decision not to take enforcement action [is] immune from judicial review,” and the deference potentially accorded to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, suggests that such statutory guidelines would likely need to be clear, express, and specific. The use of “shall” in a provision of the INA may not, in itself, suffice for a statute to be construed as having provided enforceable guidelines for immigration officials to follow in exercising prosecutorial discretion. Absent a substantive legislative response, Congress may still be able to influence the implementation of DACA or other discretion-based policies by the immigration authorities, including by engaging in stringent oversight over the DHS program or by exercising its “power of the purse” to prohibit DHS and its components from implementing particular policies related to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that Congress does not support.

To add a wrinkle to this issue, every President since Eisenhower has deferred the deportations of some classes of unauthorized immigrants or paroled some of them into the legal immigration system.  The Immigration Policy Center has put together a wonderful document explaining these previous executive actions.  The most interesting action was President George H.W. Bush’s deportation deferral for about 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants who were the spouses and children of those legalized under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.


If the President’s executive action is constitutional and would not crowd out a series of reform bills, then executive action would be an unambiguously positive policy development that would reduce the harm caused by our restrictive immigration system.  If the executive action is either unconstitutional or stymies a real immigration reform effort in Congress then the long term harm will outweigh any short term benefit.

How Common Are School Shootings?

Schools are stocking up on M16s and modified grenade launchers and holding drills involving shooting blanks in middle and high school hallways, but is the risk really worth the expense and possibility of preemptively traumatizing children?

Groups like Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety argue that our nation’s schools are dangerous, claiming that there have been 74 school shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 in an infographic that went viral earlier this summer. But a closer look at their numbers revealed that they artificially inflated the statistic by including suicides, accidents, incidents related to criminal activity (e.g. - drug dealing or robbery), and incidents that took place outside of school hours or were unconnected to members of any school community. Moreover, half of those incidents took place on college campuses. Since Sandy Hook, the actual number of K-12 school shootings in which the shooter intended to commit mass murder has been ten—a far cry from the “one school shooting per week” that President Obama claimed back in June.

Surely even one such incident is too high, but with nearly 106,000 public and private schools in the U.S., there were shootings at only 0.009% of schools since December 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2013 “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report, from the 1992-93 school year until the 2010-11 school year, there were between 11 and 34 homicides of youths ages 5-18 at schools each year (including attacks with weapons other than firearms), with an average of about 23 homicides per year. Comparing that to NCES’s enrollment statistics, about 0.000044% of public and private K-12 students were killed at school per year between 1992-93 and 2010-11. That’s about one out of every 2,273,000 students per year. By contrast, the odds of being hit by lightning in a given year is one out of 700,000 according to National Geographic. 

School Year K-12 Student Homicides  Fall Enrollment (thousands)  % Homicides
1992-93 34  48,500 0.000070%
1993-94 29  49,113 0.000059%
1994-95 28  49,898 0.000056%
1995-96 32  50,759 0.000063%
1996-97 28  51,544 0.000054%
1997-98 34  52,071 0.000065%
1998-99 33  52,526 0.000063%
1999-00 14  52,875 0.000026%
2000-01 14  53,373 0.000026%
2001-02 16  53,992 0.000030%
2002-03 18  54,403 0.000033%
2003-04 23  54,639 0.000042%
2004-05 22  54,928 0.000040%
2005-06 21  55,224 0.000038%
2006-07 32  55,524 0.000058%
2007-08 21  55,762 0.000038%
2008-09 17  55,966 0.000030%
2009-10 19  56,186 0.000034%
2010-11 11  56,480 0.000019%
     Maximum:  0.000070%
     Minimum:  0.000019%
     Average:  0.000044%

It makes sense for schools to take precautions and have contingency plans, but they should keep a sense of perspective. School shootings, especially the mass casualty incidents like Sandy Hook, are exceedingly rare. Schools should dispense with the M16s, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles.

Five Absurd Overreactions to the Surge in Child Migrants

The surge of unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) that dominated the news cycle in June and July of this year has receded – so much so that many emergency shelters established to handle the inflow are shutting down.  At the height of the surge, many commentators and government officials expected 90,000 UAC to be apprehended by the end of the fiscal year (FY).  As the end of the FY approaches, the number of apprehended UAC stands at roughly 66,000 - far below the estimates.

Now that the surge has receded, here are some of the most absurd overreactions to it.  Never before have so many commentators been so angry over so few migrants.

1.  U.S. Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) quoted in “POLITIFACT: Deadly viruses part of border crisis?Tampa Bay Times (July 29).  

Rep. Gingrey said: “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” [Emphasis added]

Ebola is a terrifying virus and a recent outbreak in West Africa shared the headlines with the surge in UAC, but that doesn’t mean the two events are linked.  Rep. Gingrey’s office indicated that he heard about child migrants carrying Ebola from border agents.  The rest of us are still waiting to hear about it.

2.  Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Camp of the Saints, 2014 Style?” National Review Online (June 13).

Apparently the terrible consequences of an influx of child migrants, which was only equal to about 6 percent of the total number of legal immigrants admitted this year, was predicted by a controversial 1973 French novel entitled The Camp of the Saints – which described the end of Western Civilization due to an influx of third-world immigrants.

Owens’ comments reveal a Western tradition that should be abandoned – that every small issue signals the downfall of Western Civilization.            

3.  Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, “SOUTHCOM chief: Central America drug war a fire threat to U.S. national security,” Military Times (July 8).

“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and illegal alien flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance. Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.” [Emphasis added]

There are certainly national security challenges that accompany America’s disastrous prosecution of the war on drugs and there is a security component to regulating immigration.  But it is quite a leap to go from pointing out problems that could potentially get worse to then stating they are “existential.”

4.  Allen West, “Aliens coming to your neighborhood? White House secretly dispersing illegal immigrants around the country,” allenbwest.com (July 14).

Former Representative Allen West (R-FL) claims that hundreds of UAC are being resettled in places like Nebraska as part of a left-wing plot to change demographics in those places: 

“Nebraska is another red state — could it be the liberal progressive objective is to begin altering the demographics there as well?” 

West then lists lots of other places where UAC were being settled – in red and blue states alike.      

5.  Dinesh D’Souza, “Manipulation by Obama Caused U.S. border Crisis – Dinesh D’Souza,” Interview with USAWatchdog.com, (August 6).

Dinesh D’Souza cites Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as the inspiration for a cynical Obama Administration ploy to cause the border crisis to convince Americans to embrace his agenda.  D’Souza said:

I think the border crisis is a pure Alinsky type of move.  Here’s what I mean by that.  Alinsky’s strategy was always to take people of good will and put them into an impossible situation.  At one point in his book, he talks about exploiting the innocence and decency of the American middle class.  We don’t like to say no to people who show up with outstretched arms.  They’re hungry, they’re sick, they need inoculations.  So, Obama’s point is how do I manipulate the goodness of the American people to put them in an impossible position?  Well, simply put out the word on the other side of the border that we are not that serious about enforcing the immigration laws.  Moreover, we are trying to get amnesty for lawbreakers already in this country.  Pretty soon, half the world shows up, and Obama throws up his hands and pretends, oh gee, how did they all come here?  I don’t blame them.  I blame the cynicism and manipulation of the Obama Administration which has manufactured, to a large degree, this crisis.[Emphasis added] 

So, President Obama uses the cynical logic of Alinsky’s Rules for Radical to cause the surge in UAC to support his political agenda … but didn’t foresee the disastrously negative political consequences such a surge would have for him, his party, and the prospects for immigration reform?  D’Souza’s claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. 

Overreactions of this caliber are the norm for other policy debates too.  Holding people to this standard is a small way to address this chronic annoyance.

Cato Live Tweeting Obama’s ISIS Speech! #CatoWHSpeech


At 9:00PM tonight, President Obama will announce expanded U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will likely explain an apparent change in direction that will include airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and possibly increased training and weapons procurement for the Iraqi military and “moderate“ segments of the Syrian rebellion. Americans are understandably worried about getting sucked back into an open-ended conflict.

Don’t miss Cato experts live tweeting Obama’s speech tonight, using the hashtag #CatoWHSpeech. You can check out the reactions and opinions of our scholars in real time. Just follow along and join in!

Is Hillary the Heir Apparent?

The New York Times reported Thursday:

Mr. Obama is fast becoming the past, not the future, for donors, activists and Democratic strategists. Party leaders are increasingly turning toward Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as Democrats face difficult races this fall in states where the president is especially unpopular, and her aides are making plain that she has no intention of running for “Obama’s third term.”

Which put me in mind of this statement famously attributed to another woman who had “the heart and stomach of a king” and the will to rule, Queen Elizabeth I:

I know the inconstancy of the English people, how they ever mislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon that person who is next to succeed. More people adore the rising sun than the setting sun.

Which is why Elizabeth never designated a successor. Every incumbent president probably wishes he had that power.