Topic: Trade and Immigration

Dear Mr. President: It’s Time to Ignore the Polls on Syrian Refugees

The latest polls are clear: Americans want little to do with the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Obama has promised to take in, much less any part of dealing with the more than 4 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. According to Gallup, 60% oppose the United States taking in refugees, compared with just 37% who approve.  As clear as the figures seem, however, there are four good reasons that Obama should avoid following the majority’s lead.

The first reason is that Americans are wildly ignorant about Syria, Islam, and the situation in the Middle East. A Pew survey in 2012 caused a kerfuffle when it revealed that 50% of Americans couldn’t identify Syria when it was highlighted on a map of the Middle East. The same survey found that just 42% could identify the crescent and star as the symbol for Islam from a set of four symbols, one of which was the Christian cross and another was the Star of David (about 34% chose Om, the symbol associated with Hinduism). This ignorance would be bad enough, but at least presidents might be able to count on American opinion, if they could only figure out which half of the people to trust!

What’s worse, however, is the collective ignorance that Americans have shown regarding major political issues over time. Thanks to fear, nationalism, religious and cultural biases, and historical circumstances, American majorities have been wrong about a number of very important issues, often over long periods of time; slavery, the treatment of native peoples, and women’s rights are just a few obvious examples. Regarding foreign affairs, the majority’s track record is very spotty. The public was far too slow to recognize the threat of Hitler, far too acquiescent when Kennedy and then Johnson escalated Vietnam to pointless disaster, and over eager to take on Iraq a second time in 2003. Regarding refugees, in particular, the current hysteria has prompted reminders that very similar majorities opposed accepting Jewish children from Germany in 1939, opposed accepting Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet control in 1958, and more recently opposed taking in refugees from Kosovo in 1999. None of those episodes seem, in retrospect, to reflect wise counsel from the public.

The third reason the president should ignore public opinion on the refugee crisis is that American attitudes are irresponsible. Even in the best of times, American public opinion does not reflect one of the most critical requirements of policy evaluation: a consideration of trade offs. Since individual Americans are not responsible for making tough decisions between guns and butter, they tend to respond to poll questions in a vacuum, unhindered by the context in which policy decisions must actually be made. When you ask Americans what they want, they want it all – military strength without economic strain, influence without upsetting the allies, and victory without casualties. In the wake of Paris, public attitudes are all the more suspect. Terrorist attacks produce fear and fear produces emotional responses, not rational ones. Of all surveys, presidents should least trust those taken in the middle of a crisis.

The fourth reason to question the will of the majority is that it is the toxic byproduct of the political echo chamber. Whether glued to the television or to Twitter, research shows that the mass public remains dependent on the foreign policy establishment for almost all the arguments and cues necessary to form opinions about foreign policy. Since the Paris attacks we have heard the Republican candidates trip over themselves to take ever more extreme positions on the refugee situation. Senator Ted Cruz has called it “nothing less than lunacy” to take in refugees; Carson called it a “suspension of intellect” to consider accepting refugees. Donald Trump has called accepting refugees “just insane” while suggesting closing mosques and considering the creation of a database of all Muslims living in the United States. In today’s information environment, such outrageous statements not only make news but they spread quickly through social media, pushing aside calmer and more reasoned assessments and proposals. Unsurprisingly, then, 60% of the public – and 84% of Republicans  – oppose Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees despite the fact that the United States has an extensive and lengthy security review process for screening refugees and despite the fact that the U.S. experience with refugees provides no support for exaggerated perceptions of a terrorist threat.

Given all this, neither President Obama, nor Congress, nor the various candidates for president should put too much stock in today’s majority opinion about Syrian refugees. Instead, Obama should lead a patient and vigorous national debate about the benefits and costs of accepting refugees, working toward a policy that meets the long-run interests of the United States. Over time, as the fear and panic from Paris subside, we should be mindful that today’s “wisdom of the crowd” may eventually look like yesterday’s folly.

What to Expect of Argentina’s New President

The election of Mauricio Macri as the new president of Argentina brings to a close 12 years of populist, interventionist and increasingly authoritarian Peronist rule by Cristina Fernández and her late husband Néstor Kirchner. Here are some observations of what’s ahead for Macri’s Argentina:

The meaning of “change”: Argentines were adamant ahead of the election that they wanted change. However, polls reflected that voters were tired of the confrontational governing style of President Fernández de Kirchner and her cadre, but not necessarily of her economic policies. The government successfully sold its so-called “narrative” regarding the wisdom of many of its interventionist policies, such as the nationalization of industries, the implementation of subsidies, prices freezes on public services, etc. This forced Mauricio Macri to either downplay the need for reforms in some areas or to outright discard them (such as reversing nationalizations). The new president will have to implement some painful measures (like scaling back subsidies that amount to 6% of GDP) that he didn’t explicitly explain to voters during the campaign.

The one area of economic policy that Argentines most rejected was the high inflation rate (around 26% now but it reached nearly 40% a year ago) and the related exchange controls. This is where Macri’s proposals were bolder: he promised to stop the doctoring of the inflation statistics and to lift exchange controls on his first day in office. He also said that the official exchange rate will reflect the reality of the market, although he didn’t specify how long it will take for the official rate and the black market rate to converge.

Paris Changed Nothing. We Still Have Every Reason to Welcome Syrian Refugees

This week, we’ve heard calls from all quarters to close our doors to the modest number of Syrian refugees President Obama proposed welcoming to the United States. Thirty governors have vowed to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states; the House of Representatives voted 289-137 to place impossibly tight restrictions on admission of refugees from Iraq and Syria;  and 2016 presidential candidates disingenuously decried the possible influx of “100,000,” “200,000” or even “250,000” refugees that no one has proposed — remember Obama only called for letting in 10,000 Syrians next year.

But after the Paris terrorist attacks of a week ago, not only should we not give in to this paranoia, we should offer entry to as many Syrian refugees as we can — it’s more important than ever to demonstrate to both our allies and our adversaries that America will live up to the values of sheltering innocents and constructively intervening to end civil war.

Not only that, in the long run, it’ll make us safer.

Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat

Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none was successfully carried out.  That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted.  To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014.  The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated and we have very little to fear from them because the refugee vetting system is so thorough.  

The brutal terrorist attack in France last Friday reignited a debate over accepting refugees from Syria and the Middle East.  A Syrian who applied for asylum could have been one of the attackers, although his passport was a forgery.  (As of this writing, all identified attackers have been French or Belgian nationals.) Governors and presidential candidates have voiced opposition to accepting any Syrian refugees, while several bills in Congress could effectively end the program.

There are many differences between Europe’s vetting of asylum seekers from Syria and how the United States screens refugees.  The geographic distance between the United States and Syria allows our government to better vet those seeking to come here, while large numbers of Syrians who try to go to Europe are less carefully vetted.  A lax security situation there does not imply a lax security situation here.  

The Differences between Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Much of the confusion over the security threat posed by refugees is over the term “refugee” itself.  It’s not yet clear how many foreign attackers in Paris entered Europe, but one or more may have entered disguised as asylum seekers. 

In the United States, asylum seekers show up at U.S. borders and ask to stay must show they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion if they return to their country of origin. There is an application and investigation process, and the government often detains the asylum seeker during that process. But the investigation and vetting of the asylum seeker often take place while he is allowed inside of the United States. Many of the Syrians and others who have entered Europe are asylum seekers who are vetted through similar, less stringent security screens.

Refugees are processed from a great distance away and are more thoroughly vetted than asylum seekers as a result.  In the United States, a refugee is somebody who is identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a refugee camp.  UNHCR does the first round of security checks on the refugee according to international treaties to which the United States is a party and refers some of those who pass the initial checks to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).  The referrals are then interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer abroad.  The refugee must be outside the United States, be of special humanitarian concern to the government, demonstrate persecution or fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and must not be firmly resettled in another country.

Because the refugee is abroad while the U.S. government checks their background, potential terrorist links, and their claims to refugee status, the vetting is a lot more thorough and can take up to two years for non-Syrians.  For Syrians, the vetting can take about three years because of the heightened concerns over security. 

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, face rigorous checks, but they are conducted while the asylum seeker is inside of the United States and not always while he is in a detention center.  Syrians fleeing violence who come to the United States will be refugees, whereas many getting into Europe are asylum seekers.  This crucial distinction shows that the United States is in a far better security situation vis-à-vis Europe on any potential terrorist threat from Syrians.

The distinction between asylum seekers and refugees is usually lost when discussing the security threat from refugees.  The father of Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev was granted asylum status, which conferred derivative asylum status on the children.  None of the Tsarnaevs were ever refugees. 

Both Tamerlan and Dzokhar were children when they were admitted through their parents’ asylum claims.  They did not adopt a radical interpretation of Islam or start plotting a terrorist attack until years after coming here.  Their case does not reveal flaws in the refugee vetting process. There were some other terrorist attacks in the early 1990s from applicants for asylum status, but none of them were actual refugees. 

The TPP and Encryption

As we evaluate the TPP in the coming months, there will be a lot of talk about the “regulatory”/”governance” parts.  These aspects can be very difficult to evaluate.  Here’s an illustration of why the assessment is so hard.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Stewart Baker had a recent post in which he worried that a particular TPP provision would prevent the NSA/FBI etc. from demanding encryption keys from private companies.  Now, I have a different view of what constitutes good public policy, so if the TPP prevented this, I wouldn’t be worried.  But does the TPP actually do this?

The provision in question is in the Technical Barriers to Trade chapter, in Annex 8-B, Section A, paras. 3-4 (pp. 22-23 of the linked document).  At first glance, it does seem as though it says what Mr. Baker thinks it says, as it provides that with respect to a product that uses cryptography and is designed for commercial applications, no TPP Party may require the transfer of a private key or something similar.  (Go to the link for the full legalese; also, note that the provision has other functions as well).

But, before we draw a final conclusion, we need to keep in mind the exceptions set out in another chapter

One particularly broad exception is for “security.”  Article 29.2(b) says:  “Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to: … preclude a Party from applying measures that it considers necessary for the fulfilment of its obligations with respect to the maintenance or restoration of international peace or security, or the protection of its own essential security interests.”  The word “considers,” in the trade law context, usually means a provision is “self-judging,” indicating that the government has a lot of leeway to do whatever it wants.  So, at least in theory, if the government demanding a private key invokes “security,” it can pretty much do whatever it wants.

So how do we find out what the TPP provisions actually mean?  What do they require from governments in terms of demanding encryption keys?

Trade Is Not a Trade-Off: The Stronger Case for Free Trade

Too many advocates of trade liberalization don’t really understand the case for free trade. Consider this sympathetic interview by Steve Inskeep of NPR with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the chief negotiator of the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

INSKEEP: Froman argues the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will give U.S. industries more access to foreign markets. Granted, there’s a trade-off. Other nations get more access to the U.S. for their products. Froman contends that, at least, happens slowly as tariffs or import taxes drop.

FROMAN: The tariff on imported trucks from Japan, as an example, won’t go away for 30 years. On apparel and textiles, we worked very closely with the textile manufacturers in the U.S. to come up with an outcome that they could be comfortable with, so that we’ll let in clothes coming that are made Vietnam or made in Malaysia, but they’ve got to use U.S. fabric.

Inskeep refers to the lowering of U.S. tariffs as “a trade-off,” and Froman accepts that characterization. Both operate from the premise that Americans want other countries to reduce their barriers to our exports, and that the “trade-off” for that benefit is that we must reduce our own trade barriers.

That’s backwards. The benefit of trade is that we get access to goods and services that we might not get otherwise, or we get to pay lower prices for the goods we want. More broadly, we want free – or at least freer – trade in order to remove the impediments that prevent people from finding the best ways to satisfy their wants. Free trade allows us to benefit from the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, and economies of scale.

More on the Immigration Ruling as We Head to the Supreme Court

Nearly a week has passed since the Fifth Circuit affirmed the injunction against President Obama’s executive action on immigration, known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). After digesting the 70-page majority opinion and 54-page dissent (plus the 11-page DAPA memo that’s an appendix), I can say that there aren’t any real surprises but we should keep in mind the following points as this case moves forward to the Supreme Court, which I elaborate on forForbes:

  1. Standing is very important.
  2. “Justiciability” is similarly crucial.
  3. The appellate court didn’t simply affirm the district court’s finding that the executive action violated the Administrative Procedure Act, but also added a further justification, that DAPA exceeds the executive’s statutory authority.

For more detailed examinations of the Fifth Circuit ruling, see Josh Blackman’s diligent series of posts on standingjusticiability, the procedural claim, the substantive claim,  the dissenting opinion generally and on standing and justiciability.

So where do we go from here? Read my Forbes piece.