Why 1619 Matters in 2019

The New York Times Magazine recently released its “1619 Project,” an initiative marking the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in North America. The project is ambitious, aiming to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding.” A collection of pundits have framed this project as an attempt to “delegitimize” the United States. Such commentary provides an opportunity to consider the state of American race relations and the role of slavery in American history. 

Whether or not the foundation of the United States was legitimate is an interesting political, moral,  and historical question. You can spend a career considering questions about when political violence is justified, what fair representation in a democracy looks like, how to measure and secure the consent of the governed, and what political system best secures natural rights. But these aren’t the kinds of questions many 1619 Project critics have in mind when they accuse it of “delegimitizing” the United States. They’re concerned that highlighting America’s brutal history of slavery and its role in forming the United States undermines the American project; an experiment in self-government. 

The relationship between black people and the white institutions that oppressed them is one of the most consequential features of American history. The most prominent of America’s contradictions is that its Founding documents were written by white men who owned black human beings as farm equipment, yet they expressed a commitment to liberty. 

Thomas Jefferson, the man who believed that it was “self-evident” that all men are created equal owned slaves. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and author of many of The Federalist Papers, also owned slaves and was skeptical of free African Americans being a part of the American polity. After leaving the White House Madison served as the president of the American Colonization Society, which urged freed black people to move to Africa. 

During the Revolutionary War, the British frigate HMS Savage sailed up the Potomac River, its troops burning houses in Maryland in view of Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate. The Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray had earlier issued a proclamation, offering freedom to slaves who fought for Britain. A wartime necessity rather an endorsement of full-throated emancipation to be sure, but it’s nonetheless telling that seventeen of Washington’s slaves fled Mt. Vernon and boarded HMS Savage. To a Virginia slave, housing in a British warship was preferable to the slave quarters belonging to the man who would become the first president of the United States.  

Bewilderment at slave owners proclaiming a devotion to liberty is hardly reserved to 21st century. In a 1775 essay on the American colonies the English writer Samuel Johnson asked not unreasonably, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” The Founding Father John Adams never owned slaves and opposed slavery, though favored gradual erosion of the instution rather than outright and immediate abolition. His wife Abigail understood the contradiction of the American Founding:

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us… .

That the Founding generation included moral hypocrites is hardly surprising. Every collection of human beings has included flawed people. Anyone scouring history books in search of moral perfection will be left disappointed. 

It’s not clear that the moral hypocrisy of some of America’s founders delegitimizes the United States per se. At worst such hypocrisy makes the founding of the United States far from perfect. Even those who think that it’s a stretch to say that the United States was founded “on” racism can hardly deny that it was founded with racist institutions explicitly protected. The evils of slavery don’t in and of themselves negate the colonists’ complaints about a lack of representation in Parliament or the fact that British officials had subjected colonists to needless, intrusive searches and other abuses against their civil rights. But they shouldn’t be overlooked. 

What is clear is that the United States has yet to fully come to terms with its history of racial violence and oppression. In large part this is because we’re accustomed to measuring our race relations progress through the lenses of military, political, and legislative victories. 

Hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the wake of an illegitimate attempt at secession predicated on the preservation of slavery. The Civil War amendments to the Constitution certainly improved the document, but they hardly erased a culture of violence and racism that made them a necessity. 

The 1619 Project: Confronting the Legacies of American Slavery

 ”I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

With those words in Notes of a Native Son, author and essayist James Baldwin captured a core conflict of being an African American in the 1950s: to love a home that very often lets you know it doesn’t love you back. So much has changed and improved since 1955, but the words still have resonance with black writers and commentators today. Criticisms of American institutions by black people are often dismissed as “divisive” or even “anti-American” because the authors want their home—our home—to be more fair and just.

Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, a collection of essays, stories, poems, and photography marking the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in the future United States. The project, the brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, is an ambitious collaboration to address the painful but necessary aspects of American history that shape the present. The 1619 Project explores the most profound struggle for freedom in the United States:race-based chattel slavery and its myriad legacies. Anyone committed to liberty should read and engage it.

Unfortunately, The 1619 Project is receiving over-the-top criticisms that accuse the writers of dividing America along racial lines or undermining the very idea of the American project. Perhaps anticipating such reactions, Hannah-Jones echoes Baldwin’s sentiment in the opening essay, writing “Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.”

To be clear, engagement does not mean unquestioning agreement with everything in the 1619 issue. Indeed, libertarians specifically will find certain claims about the relationship between modern American capitalism and slavery to be off-putting, and there are economic and historical claims that are already being contested by scholars. But those issues are not in every piece, and much of the history is solid but not well-known. One need not agree with everything a writer says to benefit from reading it.


How to Flip a Yield Curve

If the recent yield curve panic proves anything, it proves that, in financial markets, what may start out as a mere statistical correlation, and possibly a spurious one, can become a genuine causal relationship. In particular, if enough people subscribe to a post-hoc fallacy, it may not stay a fallacy for long.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It was, therefore, just a matter of time before the discovery that inverted yield curves often anticipate recessions resulted in the world’s first yield-curve induced panic. And the distance between panic to recession is no great stretch. Knowing that the curve has turned turtle, and anticipating tumbling stock markets and shrinking incomes, the public rushes to trade stocks for more liquid assets, while banks tighten lending standards. Lo and behold, stocks do tumble, and incomes do shrink. A slowdown then threatens. Should the monetary and fiscal authorities fail to avert it, the slowdown can become a contraction. If the contraction lasts, it becomes a recession. And all this because the yield curve went concave. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Really.

Courts Shouldn’t Let President Steel Congress’s Power to Regulate Foreign Commerce

Although the Constitution assigns regulatory power over foreign commerce to Congress, the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 delegates this function to the president. As made obvious by its title, the purpose of this law is to grow foreign commerce by opening trade. Alas, one provision—Section 232—works to diminish international trade by empowering the president to unilaterally regulate imports in the interest of “national security.” When Congress passed Section 232, lawmakers were worried about the possibility that a disruption in the global oil trade might constrain the military’s supply of jet fuel. Accordingly, presidential exercises of Section 232, while rare, always targeted oil imports.

In March of 2018, President Trump smashed the mold and instituted a 25 percent tariff on imported steel products. “Flimsy” is a gross understatement in describing the president’s putative “national security” justification: military requirements for steel represent only three percent of the commodity’s domestic production. Indeed, the United States produces twice as much steel as it imports. More troubling is that the president made no effort to explain why he departed from his predecessors’ practice, which uniformly had accounted for the allied status of countries potentially subject to Section 232. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, President Trump offered no explanation for why he chose to set the tariffs at an even 25 percent and how this figure relates to the “national security.”

Faced with these unprecedented and unreasonable regulations, the American Institute for International Steel (a trade group of steel-consuming companies) and other parties harmed by the tariffs filed suit in the Court of International Trade (“CIT”). They alleged that Section 232 is an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking power because it allows the president to merely cite “national security” and thereby to regulate imports in any manner.

The CIT conceded the dangers of unbound executive authority, yet refused to provide a constitutional check. According to that court, Section 232 regulation falls into “a gray area where the President could invoke the statute to act in a manner constitutionally reserved for Congress but not objectively outside the President’s statutory authority, and the scope of review would preclude the uncovering of such a truth.”

After the CIT sided with the government, the plaintiffs sought to take the case directly to the Supreme Court, and Cato filed a brief supporting them. Because the Supreme Court denied that petition, their case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Cato has again filed a brief supporting these challengers to the existing legal regime.

We argue that the CIT is wrong in allowing for regulatory “gray areas” where the president may act within the statute but outside the Constitution. In fact, the CIT mistakenly assumed that federal courts may not conduct any oversight of the president’s regulatory powers over international trade. To the contrary, if courts can’t review such actions, then Congress violated the non-delegation principle by giving the president legislative powers that are beyond review. But if courts can review the president’s regulatory powers, then President Trump’s arbitrary steel tariffs have to fail judicial scrutiny.

The case is American Institute for International Steel v. United States.

On Oren Cass and Industrial Policy

A lot of “national conservatives” and those sympathetic to their economic goals have been pushing for the federal government to adopt an explicit “industrial policy.” Chief among them has been Oren Cass, a thoughtful scholar at the Manhattan Institute, whose writings on the dignity of work I’ve written briefly about before.

Though a lot of his arguments echo those heard historically or in other countries, his specific case is worth addressing directly, as it seems to be resonating in conservative circles. So today I’ve published an extensive critique of his recent speech at the National Conservatism conference as a Cato commentary.

In short, I’m disappointed by the lack of empirical grounding to his arguments. And I think he makes a fundamental mistake in assuming that, even if an industrial policy was feasible and could be faithfully executed, it would generate both “stable employment” for low-skilled workers and high productivity growth.

I conclude:

Oren Cass asserts that markets cannot generally allocate resources efficiently by industry. Yet he provides no meaningful metrics to show this is the case, nor shows why his policies would deliver better outcomes. His two main claims about the benefits of a manufacturing sector — “stable employment” and “strong productivity growth” — are directly contradictory. A plethora of evidence suggests as countries’ get richer due to automation and technological improvements, they demand relatively more services, and so the industrial sector declines in employment terms.

It would hurt, not improve, general economic performance to try to create stable employment in manufacturing industries given these trends, and would be particularly foolish given the likely rising demand for high-end manufacturing and services (healthcare, education, insurance, finance, etc.) as the global middle-class develops.

You can read the whole piece here.

It’s Not The Number of Pills—It’s The Number of Deaths That Matter

letter to the editor in the August 14 New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the University of Michigan proudly reported on the results of their effort, called the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative (MSQC), to reduce the volume of opioids prescribed for postoperative pain. The Collaborative developed a set of guidelines for its participating prescribers.

As a result, they found that from January 2017 through May 2018, the mean number of pills prescribed for postoperative pain decreased from 26 (+/-2) pills pre-guideline to 18 (+/– 3) pills post-guideline. Patient pill consumption also decreased from an average of 12 pills (+/-1) pre-guideline to 9 pills (+/-2) post-guideline. During that period there was no discernible difference in the pain scores reported by these patients pre-and post-guideline.

It seems all of health care is now fixated on getting the number of prescription pain pills down. Yet there is no correlation between prescription volume and nonmedical use or use disorder/addiction. And as prescription volume has dramatically come down since 2010, the overdose rate has dramatically increased. Furthermore, in 2017 at least 75% of opioid-related overdoses were from heroin or fentanyl, while 40% of overdoses involving prescription opioids had multiple other drugs onboard, including heroin, fentanyl, alcohol, and tranquilizers.

So, as academic physicians continue to virtue signal and show the media and regulators how well they are complying with the “new opiophobia” by reducing opioid prescribing, the overdose rate continues to climb.

To be fair, an oversupply of prescription pain pills to patients can lead to more pills getting diverted into the black market for nonmedical users. But as a doctor who cares about reducing deaths, I would prefer that nonmedical users take diverted prescription opioids as opposed to heroin or fentanyl or counterfeit prescription pills made from fentanyl

The focus should be on the number of deaths, not the number of pills. For that to happen, policy must to shift to harm reduction.



President Trump’s DHS Sides with Cato on How to Measure Immigrant Welfare Use

The federal government released the final version of the public charge rule this week.  My colleague David Bier covered it extensively while some of our other Cato research on immigrant welfare use and how to reduce it was also prominently featured.  Unexpectedly, the published public choice rule contained a gem that seems to settle a long-running methodological disagreement between Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and myself on how best to measure immigrant use of welfare.

First, some background.  Cato has published two studies of immigrant welfare use since 2013.  Cato published the first such paper in 2013 that was written by Professor Leighton Ku, Director of the Center for Health Policy Research, and Brian Bruen, Lead Research Scientist & Lecturer in George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, Department of Health Policy.  Their paper found that:

[L]ow-income non-citizen immigrants, including adults and children, are generally less likely to receive public benefits than those who are native-born. Moreover, when non-citizen immigrants receive benefits, the value of benefits they receive is usually lower than the value of benefits received by those born in the United States. The combination of lower average utilization and smaller average benefits indicates that the overall cost of public benefits is substantially less for low-income non-citizen immigrants than for comparable native-born adults and children.

Later in 2013, my former colleague Sophie Cole and I wrote another paper on how Congress could build a more effective wall around the welfare state by denying all benefits to non-citizens.  That paper relied on some of the original empirical research by Ku and Bruen.  Our ideas and others were eventually incorporated into an excellent bill introduced by Representative Grothman (R-WI) in 2018.    

Last year, we published another paper that updated Ku and Bruen’s work with some minor changes.  We expanded their analysis to the rest of the welfare state and presented findings that removed the controls from their first study.  We found that “[o]verall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans.”

Each time we’ve published these papers, Steven Camarota or others have criticized them in print.  I’ve also criticized their work when they publish their immigrant welfare cost estimates.  Here are just some of the exchanges.  The most substantive outstanding methodological disagreement that remains between us was whether to count the welfare benefits used by individuals only or to include the welfare consumed by anybody in an immigrant-headed household too. 

We’ve long thought that counting individual-level welfare consumption was the best method as welfare consumed by native-born American spouses and children is not welfare consumed by immigrants.  Controlling for the unit receiving the welfare benefit is required to make apples-to-apples comparisons between native and immigrant welfare use.  Since households vary in size and many contain immigrants living with natives, looking at individuals is the best way to control for that.  Furthermore, a person’s eligibility for welfare and for determining the value of most welfare programs depends upon the applicant’s individual circumstances.

Camarota and CIS have long argued that the welfare consumed by an immigrant-headed household is the appropriate measure, even if that includes welfare consumed by some native-born spouses and children.  Camarota argues that some of that welfare spending only occurred because of the immigrant being present here.  This methodological choice matters quite a bit in the final analysis, with household measures reporting a higher welfare use rate and dollar value of consumed benefits while individual-level assessments generally find lower levels of benefit consumption.

The new public charge rule produced by President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sides with Cato on this dispute for the purposes of estimating future immigrant welfare use and for tallying past usage.  Here is just one example of what DHS wrote:


This final rule also clarifies that DHS will only consider public benefits received

directly by the alien for the alien’s own benefit, or where the alien is a listed beneficiary

of the public benefit. DHS will not consider public benefits received on behalf of

another. DHS also will not attribute receipt of a public benefit by one or more members

of the alien’s household to the alien unless the alien is also a listed beneficiary of the

public benefit.


This isn’t a surprise as academics measure welfare use on the individual level and DHS counts welfare use by looking at individual’s immigration statuses, not by the fanciful “immigrant-headed” method which is probably statistically meaningless.  However, it is nice to have President Trump’s DHS side with Cato’s methodological choices in evaluating immigrant welfare use.  I look forward to CIS changing its methods in future iterations of its immigrant welfare research.