201611

November 15, 2016 5:10PM

The Enemy Gets a Vote

Resolute Desk

In the week since election night, foreign policy watchers (myself included) have rushed to speculate about the effects that President Trump’s administration will have on the world. The most dramatic effect is the potential upending of the international order that the United States built after World War II. Of course, at this point it is impossible to determine whether or not such a consequence will come to pass, but it deserves consideration.

Baked into the idea that Trump will tear down the international order is the assumption that Hillary Clinton would have maintained the order if she was president. Jeffrey A. Stacey argued as much in Foreign Affairs when he wrote, “The world’s challenges require a determined use of U.S. leadership, not isolationism. And in the areas where Obama’s restraint has failed, the more activist Hillary Clinton Doctrine…could likely prevail.” However, the idea that the United States can influence events through “leadership” ignores the fact that in foreign policy the enemy gets a vote. In other words, the growing relative power of America’s adversaries will still pose a challenge to the international order, regardless of what actions the United States takes or who sits in the Oval Office.

America’s ability to rein in the bad behavior of other states has diminished, not because the United States is in decline, but rather because the power of our adversaries has grown. In East Asia, for example, the two most important challenges to the security status quo are North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s improving conventional military capabilities. Both developments threaten the regional order in East Asia, and resist American attempts to stop them. Multilateral and bilateral sanctions efforts have failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which has come a long way with minimal external assistance.

China’s growing military power enables more assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas, despite displays of resolve by the United States and its allies. While many have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more against China, the simple fact is that as its military grows strong it becomes harder to deter China from using it. Beyond East Asia, after years of neglect following the Cold War, the Russian military is fielding new capabilities and pushing back against NATO expansion to countries along its border.

The growing relative power of America’s adversaries does not make the president obsolete, but the individual behind the Resolute desk is not omnipotent. They cannot always prevent changes in the balance of power or maintain the international order by dialing up the “leadership” they demonstrate. We don’t know what impact Donald Trump will have on the world, but the threats America faces would exist regardless of who won the election. The assumption that Hillary Clinton would be able to prevent negative outcomes through greater leadership on the international stage disregards the growing power and agency of America’s challengers. 

November 15, 2016 5:00PM

The “Progressive” Threat to Baltic Exceptionalism

I'm a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia's system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

Media Name: baltic-cuts.jpg

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia's government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. ...Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia's economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. ...The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia's different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia's second-largest party, which is favored by the country's sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation's flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. ...The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. ...The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. ...Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

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November 15, 2016 11:34AM

DHS: Even‐​handed Enforcer or Punisher of Select States?

Just over a month ago, another Department of Homeland Security deadline for state compliance with the provisions of the REAL ID Act passed. It was but the most recent in a series of deadlines DHS has improvised since the statutory May 2008 compliance date passed without a single state participating in the national ID program.

Time and again, when faced with resistance from the states, DHS has backed down. But the agency has had more success goading states toward compliance since it stopped issuing deadline extensions in the Federal Register and took the process offline to deal directly with individual states. Divide and conquer works.

A new series of deadlines assigns different states to one of three dates---January 30th, June 6th, and October 16th, 2017---depending on where they are in the compliance process. If the states in each category have not sufficiently answered to DHS by the relevant date, DHS will judge them non-compliant. As it has so many times before, DHS says their residents will then be at risk of having their state-issued IDs refused for federal purposes.

Because so much of this is happening behind the scenes, it is hard to gauge how DHS is choosing which states to play hardball with and which states to treat with kid gloves. But the staggered compliance deadlines have the feel of meting out punishment to states that have been the most vocal in their resistance to REAL ID. It does not have the feel of an agency neutrally enforcing a generally applicable law.

Consider the earliest group, which has a January 30th, 2017 deadline. It consists of Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina (as well as the U.S. territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands). DHS already considers Minnesota, Missouri, and Washington State "non-compliant" with REAL ID.

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November 15, 2016 10:16AM

Trump’s Trillion‐​Dollar Infrastructure Plan

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to spend twice as much on infrastructure as whatever Hillary Clinton was proposing, which at the time was $275 billion. Doubling down again in a speech after winning the election, Trump now proposes to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure over the next ten years.

President Obama had proposed to fix infrastructure with an infrastructure bank, though just where the bank would get its money was never clear (actually, it was perfectly clear: the taxpayers). Trump's alternative plan is for the private sector, not taxpayers, to spend the money, and to encourage them he proposes to offer tax credits for infrastructure projects. He says this would be "revenue neutral" because the taxes paid by people working on the infrastructure would offset the tax breaks. In short, Trump is proposing tax credits in lieu of an infrastructure bank as a form of economic stimulus.

America's infrastructure needs are not nearly as serious as Trump thinks. Throwing a trillion dollars at infrastructure, no matter how it is funded, guarantees that a lot will be spent on unnecessary things. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser recently pointed out in an article that should be required reading for Trump's transition team, just calling something "infrastructure" doesn't mean it is worth doing or that it will stimulate economic growth.

Infrastructure more or less falls into three categories, and Trump's one-size-fits-all plan doesn't work very well for any of them. First is infrastructure that pays for itself, such as the electrical grid. Private companies and public agencies are already taking care of this kind, so if Trump's plan applied to them, they would get tax credits for spending money they would have spent anyway. That's not revenue neutral.

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November 14, 2016 1:20PM

Trump and Federal Workers

The incoming Trump administration has indicated that it will make reforms to the federal workforce. Here are a few places where the administration may focus its efforts:

  • Freezing Hiring: Trump’s Contract with the American Voter promised “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).” As a goodwill gesture, Trump should also shrink the army of almost 4,000 political appointees in his administration in order to speed agency decisionmaking.
  • Increasing Firing: Trump is famous for firing people on his TV show, and he will likely support reforms to increase federal firing. On the campaign trail, Trump talked about firing VA executives, and his advisors Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich talked about the importance of civil service reforms to increase firing. Reforms are needed: federal civilian workers are fired at just one-sixth the rate that private-sector workers are. Members of the federal senior executive service are fired at just one-twentieth the rate that corporate CEOs are.
  • Reducing Retirement Benefits. Federal wages and benefits are higher, on average, than in the private sector, but it is on benefits that federal compensation really stands out. The WaPo has discussed various GOP proposals to reduce federal benefits. My favored reform is to repeal the old-fashioned defined-benefit pension plan. That would leave federal workers with a generous defined-contribution plan, which is the standard in the private sector.  
  • Reforming Federal Unions. One reform was mentioned in the Republican platform: “union representatives should not be allowed to engage in union-related activities while on the public’s time.” Republicans on the Hill have been investigating the use and abuse of such “official time” in federal agencies.

My essays “Bureaucratic Failure in the Federal Government” and “Reducing the Costs of Federal Worker Pay and Benefits” should provide useful information to the Trump team in assembling its workforce reform agenda.

November 14, 2016 11:44AM

Nativists Created Our Immigration Problems — They Can’t Fix Them

Proponents of more restrictions on immigration—legal and illegal—talk a big game, suggesting more penalties for lawbreakers, more assets for the border, and more surveillance for the workforce. These, restrictionists say, will restore the rule of law. Yet while occupying the White House is new for them, the fact is that restrictionists largely dictated U.S. policy until recently. Not only have their ideas failed on their terms, they have backfired, creating more lawlessness than before.

Creating the Problem

Before the 1920s, America had no numerical restriction on the number of immigrants, so legal immigrants poured in. As a share of the population, total annual immigration flows were four times as great then as they are today. Restrictionists—members of the progressive wings of both parties—won the election of 1920 and immediately imposed a numerical cap. This reduced legal immigration by 80 percent, barring immigrants regardless of their health, wealth, or skills.

This fateful decision spawned all of the problems that restrictionists have blamed on their opponents ever since. “While legal immigration has been curbed to the extent that advocates of the new policy expected, that of the illegal—the ‘bootlegging’—kind has probably increased greatly,” the New York Times reported in 1925. “Some officials estimate that immigrants have been coming in clandestinely at a rate of at least 100 a day.”

Border patrols and deportations were increased to stop the flow of unauthorized immigrants, but they had little effect. “I’ve no doubt whatever that the man finally deported is back here,” the Assistant Secretary of Labor told the Times. “Easily 50 per cent of them return.” In July 1929, Congress gave in and provided “amnesty” or citizenship to the undocumented immigrants. Then, the Great Depression dried up demand for workers, temporarily resolving the issue.

When the economy finally picked up again following World War II, illegal immigration returned. This time, Congress opted for a different approach: admit more workers legally. Under the Bracero guest worker program, illegal immigration almost vanished as the number of Braceros soared to almost a half a million in the early 1960s (Figure 1). Apprehended Mexicans were directed to border stations to receive cards to enter legally.

Figure 1: Aliens Apprehended at the Border and Low-Skilled Guest Workers (Braceros & H-2s)

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Sources: Border Patrol; INS

But the restrictionists wouldn’t allow the fix to last. Over the vigorous objections from the Border Patrol, they cancelled the program under the guise of protecting U.S. workers. Over the next decade, the entire legal flow (and then some) was replaced with immigrants entering illegally. By the 1980s, over a million people were crossing the border each year. 

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November 14, 2016 10:37AM

A Non‐​Polarizing Secretary of the Interior

In 1993, Bill Clinton swept into office with a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate. His attempt to pass a controversial health-care bill failed but generated enough of a backlash that the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in 1995.

In 2001, George H.W. Bush entered the White House with Republicans in control of both houses. The events of 9/11 muted criticism of Bush for a time, but by 2007 Democrats had taken over Congress.

In 2009, Barack Obama became president and Democrats held both houses of Congress. He succeeded where Clinton failed in passing a health-care bill, but Republicans took over the House in 2011 and the Senate in 2015.

Pundits say that Americans like to have different parties controlling the White House and Congress. However, Americans are often angry at the gridlock that results. So why do they vote that way?

The answer is that the party that takes over both branches often overreaches, which has the effect of polarizing the other side. The party in power would be better off taking small steps that lead to genuine results rather than try to take large steps that either can't be achieved (Hillarycare) or that create more problems than they solve (Obamacare).

A case in point is the Department of the Interior, a highly visible agency that has proven to be a lightning rod for both sides. Ronald Reagan's appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior helped build the environmental movement in the 1980s because environmental groups used Watt as their leading fundraising tool. They in turn used those funds to stymie just about everything Watt wanted to do with the public lands.

Now rumor has it that Trump is considering Sarah Palin for Secretary of the Interior, though an oil company executive named Forrest Lucas seems a bit more likely (Lucas contributed $50,000 to Mike Pence's gubernatorial campaigns). What a great way for environmental groups to rebuild their memberships!

As Secretary, either Palin or Lucas would be likely to try to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and extraction. Bush tried this in 2001 and the environmentalists successfully prevented it. Instead of going after the most controversial piece of ground in the nation, Bush should have--and Trump should--start with opening less controversial areas to show that oil development is compatible with wildlife and other resources.

In the same way, instead of controversial figures like Palin or Lucas, Trump could ask Gary Johnson to be Secretary of the Interior. As a former western governor, Johnson is more familiar with public lands than Lucas. As a dedicated free marketeer, Johnson won't be committed to one resource over all others; instead, he will try to find ways to maximize the value of all of them together.

Johnson's Libertarian candidacy shouldn't make him unacceptable, but if it does, how about current Arizona Governor Doug Ducey? As former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, Ducey isn't identified with one natural resource or another. As a fiscally conservative Republican, Ducey should fit right in with Trump's agenda.

Whoever is picked should focus on maximizing the value of public lands, partly by maximizing returns they produce for the Treasury. This will mean convincing Congress to give public land agencies, including the Forest Service, the authority to charge more user fees. It will mean more oil & gas drilling, but instead of focusing on controversial areas, the new secretary should start with some demonstration projects to show it can make resource extraction compatible with conservation. If Audubon allows oil wells on one of its wildlife refuges and the Nature Conservancy allows timber cutting on its conservation lands, the United States should be able to do similar demonstration projects on public lands.