U.S. Policy Choices Regarding China

While the Obama administration has preoccupied itself with developments in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, a far more important foreign policy relationship continues to deteriorate.  Late last month, a nasty incident occurred when a Chinese fighter plane intercepted and harassed a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island, where China has a major submarine base.  It is just the latest in a growing list of spats between Washington and Beijing. 

Relations had already become tense because of China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and its acrimonious dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.  Washington suspects that China is trying to become the dominant power in East Asia and gradually displace the United States from that role.  Beijing suspects that the United States is trying to enlist East Asian nations in a de facto containment policy directed against China, although Americans also want to continue enjoying the benefits of an extensive economic relationship with that country.  Both sides are probably correct in their suspicions.

In an article over at the National Interest Online, I suggest that the Obama administration’s China policy is a dangerous muddle.  Instead of continuing to drift toward an implicit, hostile containment policy, even as America’s regional clout continues to erode, the United States should consider two other options.  One would be to recognize China as the pre-eminent power in East Asia, thereby accepting a Chinese equivalent of America’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere.  I discuss that option in greater detail in an article in China-U.S. Focus.  Britain’s willingness in the 1890s to defer to the United States in the Western Hemisphere ended tensions between the two countries and ushered in an era of extremely close relations.  A similar trend might occur following such a U.S. concession to China in East Asia. 

But as I note, Britain and the United States were both democratic, capitalist states with similar cultures and overlapping interests.  Today’s China, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, quasi-capitalist country.  Conceding regional pre-eminence to a country with those characteristics would be much harder and riskier for the United States.

The other policy option would be for the United States to adopt a much lower security profile in that part of the world and allow a natural balance of power to develop between China and its uneasy neighbors, led by Japan.  That approach would recognize that the strategic and economic dominance that the United States enjoyed following the end of World War II was artificial and has been fading for at least a quarter century.  Not only China’s rise, but the growing prosperity and capabilities of other East Asian nations have eroded Washington’s advantages.  U.S. power in the region is still superior to that of any other actor, but the margin grows narrower, and that trend is likely to continue.  Policymakers need to ask themselves whether it is realistic to expect that a country whose homeland is thousands of miles away can continue to be East Asia’s hegemon much longer.  It makes more sense to relinquish that role gradually and create incentives for Japan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, South Korea and other countries to become more assertive in balancing China’s growing power and sometimes abrasive behavior. 

Fostering the development of an independent regional balance of power has some drawbacks.  It would require the United States to relinquish the security role it has played for nearly seven decades, as well as relinquish the prestige and influence accompanying that role.  And there is no guarantee that adopting a lower U.S. security profile in East Asia would produce the outcome we desire.  Although unlikely, it is possible that the countries there would capitulate and accept Chinese dominance instead of assuming the costs and risks required to balance that country.  Alternatively, the emergence of multiple well-armed powers could create greater instability in the region.  No strategy is risk free.

One point is increasingly apparent, however.  Clear policy choices, even if difficult, need to be made.  As China’s power grows, it will become harder and riskier for Washington to continue its contradictory strategy of containing China while trying to enjoy the fruits of a close bilateral economic relationship.  We need a more coherent China policy—and soon.

Degrade ISIS’s Capabilities, Avoid Mission Creep

In a primetime address Wednesday evening, President Obama will announce that he will authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria as part of his larger strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS. This represents a marked escalation of U.S. action against the notorious group that now controls large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria. According to the New York Times, the president’s strategy will be “a long-term campaign far more complex than the targeted strikes the United States has used against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.”

In advance of his speech, I have written a piece for Reason in which I urge the president to listen to the American people.

A majority of Americans support a military response – though not U.S. troops on the ground. Very few are content with allowing ISIS to spread its influence with impunity, especially after the brutal killing of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The group has effectively declared itself an enemy of the United States, and there is growing support for action against the group before it even attempts an attack on the U.S. homeland (something that it appears only to be aspiring to, as opposed to actively planning for).

In the article, I also warn against mission creep, the possibility of which is all too real.

The hawks on both the left and right believe that a large U.S. ground presence is required because they don’t want to limit the mission to merely hitting ISIS – they want to restore stability and order in Iraq, exclude Iranian influence from Iraqi politics, and topple Bashar Assad in Syria. In other words, they want us back in the nation-building business, but now in two countries racked by civil war and sectarian hatreds, instead of just one.

To avoid being drawn into such a scenario, the president needs to clearly answer two particularly relevant questions: how large a response is justified; and what end state is acceptable? The president should resist sending in a large number of ground troops and be content to degrade ISIS to the point that it can be contained by the many enemies that directly surround it.

Read the whole thing here.

Self-Driving School Choice

Over at Education Next today, I discuss how self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically expand educational options. Here’s a taste:

Self-driving cars will be able to respond to surroundings much faster than human reflexes, allowing for greater safety at much greater speeds. That will cut down on commute times, or allow people to work—or send their kids to school—further from home with the same commute time. Moreover, freed from the need to focus on the road, time spent commuting could be much more productive.

With commutes shorter and more productive, the distance that parents will consider logistically feasible will significantly increase. That could exponentially expand the number of educational options that parents consider within driving distance. Using Private School Review’s search feature, I found 12 private schools within three miles of my Arizona home, 34 schools within five miles, 69 schools within ten miles, 234 schools within 25 miles, and 304 schools within 50 miles. Now that’s choice!

Arkansas’ Budget-Busting Medicaid Expansion

Back in February, I highlighted the fight to reauthorize Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare in Arkansas. The states’ plan not only expanded Medicaid; it did so in a more expensive way.  Supporters claimed that the concerns were hogwash. Costs would be the same or lower because Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) required “budget neutrality” for the expansion. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms that AR’s expansion is a budget-buster.

Medicaid provides insurance to low-income individuals, focused on pregnant women, children, and the disabled. ObamaCare sought to expand this program adding millions of able-bodied, childless adults to the program. States that agreed to dramatically expand the entitlement program would receive a large sum of federal funding. The federal government agreed to fund 100 percent of expenditures through 2016, slowly decreasing to 90 percent in 2020 and after. Even with the large financial enticement, states, rightly, resisted. The program is expensive to operate. States also have little control over the program. The quality of insurance is poor. A 2013 study found “no significant improvements” in health outcomes for individuals joining the program.

Arkansas decided to try something different. Under the plan passed by Democrat Governor Mike Beebe and the Republican legislature, more than 200,000 individuals would join the state’s Medicaid rolls. These individuals would not join the traditional program, but instead would receive money from the state and federal government to purchase insurance on the state’s newly-created health insurance exchange. This plan was preferable, according to advocates, because it would eliminate the known health disparities between traditional Medicaid and private insurance. Better yet, the AR Department of Human Services said that the so-called private option would save the state $670 million over the next ten years and would save the federal government $600 million. Choice and competition would power the market and result in lower prices.

Supporters argued that if the state was going to dramatically expand an entitlement program; it should do it in a fiscally-conservative way saving money in the process.

However, subsidizing Medicaid expansion through private insurance is not fiscally conservative. It turns out that private insurance costs $3,000–or 50 percent more–per enrollee than traditional Medicaid coverage according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Spending $3,000 per person more adds up to a huge added cost for taxpayers. This would be compounded by the Arkansas’ decision–due to federal strings–to eliminate any out-of-pocket expenses for enrollees; no co-pays, no deductibles, no cost-sharing.

Supporters of Arkansas’ expansion claimed it didn’t matter because HHS’s approval required that the plan be “budget neutral.” In other words, the federal government would not spend more than if the state pursued traditional expansion. If the state exceeded the budget cap, the state would be responsible for the additional expenses. The state would be forced to tweak the program later if costs rose.

The plan passed and costs quickly grew. The first month was overbudget. As of June, the program was $10 million overbudget.

GAO now says that HHS did not guarantee budget neutrality in the Arkansas plan suggesting that even more taxpayer money is at risk. “HHS did not ensure budget neutrality. HHS approved a spending limit that included hypothetical costs despite questionable state assumptions and limited supporting documentation…HHS officially told us they accepted the state’s projections of the increased cost of expanding Medicaid in the absence of a demonstration without requesting data to support the state’s assumptions.”

HHS just accepted what Arkansas said, and did not question the state’s assumptions. The promised federal backstop does not seem to exist. GAO estimates that the “$4.0 billion spending limit approved by HHS was about $778 million [over three years] more than what it would have been.”  That’s a 20 percent increase in costs for federal taxpayers.

Making matters worse, GAO says that AR has the authority to “adjust the approved spending limits if costs…prove higher than expected.” This sort of upward flexibility never used to be granted, but HHS recently granted it to 11 other states. AR has already acknowledged that it might need a higher spending limit.

This is not the first time that GAO has highlighted HHS’ inability to properly enforce budget neutrality. HHS’ refusal to properly set spending caps is costing federal taxpayers millions, or billions, more than it should. GAO confirms that Medicaid expansion in Arkansas is busting the budget.  

Clinton and Bush Introduce Leadership Program

Yesterday Bill Clinton and George W. Bush reportedly gushed “about each other’s leadership and acute decision-making skills.”  The two former presidents were launching a “joint program to train young leaders.”

According to the New York Times story, the audience was “packed with Bush and Clinton White House alumni.”  Oh, that explains all the laughter and backslapping.  The former presidents were confident that no one would ask them serious questions about their actions in office.  Here are a few questions that young leaders might consider asking the gentlemen before applying for their program:

Thank You, Mrs. Klose

Thank you for standing up for your right, and that of other Americans, not to be coerced: 

Lillian Gobitis Klose, who as a school-age member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the U.S. flag with her classmates, a controversial act of conscience that set off a legal tug of war in the 1930s and ’40s that ultimately bolstered the First Amendment right to religious expression, died Aug. 22 in Fayetteville, Ga. She was 90.

School officials in Minersville, Pa., where her parents ran a grocery store, expelled the young Ms. Gobitis for this act of defiance. But convinced that her Jehovah’s Witness faith forbade a public display of allegiance to a national symbol, she took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 – and lost, 8-1, with Justice Felix Frankfurter writing, sententiously, that “National unity is the basis of national security.”

Hers wasn’t a comfortable stand to take, especially with war looming, as the Washington Post’s obituary notes:

“It was a very scary time,” Mrs. Klose told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On one occasion, the Gobitis family was in a car when a mob attempted to flip it over. Another time, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer, the police chief parked his car outside her family’s grocery store to protect it from a threatened attack.

Especially with homeschooling rights virtually unrecognized at the time, Jehovah’s Witness youngsters were at risk of being sent to state reformatories, and their parents were at risk of prosecution for contributing to delinquency.  But by yielding no ground, Lillian Gobitis prepared the way for a victory just three years later, when in a case with similar facts, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the high court reversed itself and in a 6-3 ruling upheld the right not to salute the flag or say the pledge. Justice Robert Jackson’s ringing pronouncement was to enter the constitutional canon: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”  

It always did seem a bit hopeful for Jackson to pronounce that principle a “fixed star”; after all, the Court was reversing a contrary ruling from just three years previous. But the phrase was more accurate as prediction: the principle was to become a fixed star in constitutional jurisprudence, to the immense benefit of Americans and our liberty. Even in an era in which, ominously, some elected officials seek to roll back other First Amendment protections, there is little if any movement to reverse the flag and pledge decisions.

Well done, Lillian Gobitis Klose.

 

 

Hungry Congressional Staffers Discover the Value of Trade

Under current ethics rules, members of Congress are allowed to receive gifts of snack food from companies located in their states or districts, as long as the snacks are available to office visitors.  While constituents visiting the Capitol may be getting to enjoy home-grown treats, the real beneficiaries here are the office employees who have privileged access to free snacks.

Yesterday Politico ran a light-hearted story about a thriving, informal market that has developed for congressional staffers to trade these free snacks.  It’s funny and you should read it in its entirety.  In order to be insufferably pedantic, I thought I would share a few thoughts on how this peculiar market, like all markets, developed as a way for individual humans to improve their lives through trade.

The rules create a peculiar inconvenience for hungry staffers, as they can only get free snacks produced by a company in their boss’s district.  Some offices only have Pepsi products while others only have Coke.  Some have healthy food and some have junk food.  Free snacks are great and all, but what do you do when the snacks you have aren’t the snacks you want?

The problem here is a non-optimal distribution of snacks, and the solution is trade.

Dozens of junior staff who spoke with POLITICO described an elaborate barter system based on local products. Pepsi is swapped for M&M’s, and Coca-Cola for Craisins.

Some of the foods that are most highly in demand are also well supplied in Capitol Hill offices, while others appeal to more particular tastes.  These realities shape their value as products to trade. 

Frito-Lay chips and Mars candy are the most common — and perhaps the most commonly traded — snacks on the Hill. Both manufacturers have operations in several states.

And orange juice, it turns out, is a hot commodity on the Hill, trading at times for as many as five bags of Lay’s chips.

Not all products on the political circuit are well-known brands. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has Ola! all natural granola, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) has Cherry Mash, a chocolate cherry treat, and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) has Aplets & Cotlets, a square fruit puree and nut snack that isn’t all that tradable.