Archives: 08/2017

“Fire and Fury” Signifying Nothing: Comparing North Korean and American Deterrent Threats

Seventy-two years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the specter of nuclear war once again hangs over the world. In the span of a few hours, both the United States and North Korea made nuclear threats against one another. Donald Trump went first, saying “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Shortly after Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, North Korea’s KCNA carried a statement from the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) that threatened the “air pirates” stationed at Guam with a nuclear strike. The KCNA statement closed with the warning, “[The United States] should immediately stop its reckless military provocation against the state of the DPRK so that the latter would not be forced to make an unavoidable military choice.” While KCNA did not reference Trump’s comments, the timing of its release creates the impression that the two countries had issued dueling nuclear threats.

At their core, both Trump’s “fire and fury” comment and the KCNA statement are deterrent threats, which seek to prevent a certain action by threatening a high cost in retaliation. If the target of the deterrent threat takes the action that the threat issuer deems unacceptable, then the former will suffer a worse fate. The credibility of deterrent threats depend on whether or not the targeted state believes that the issuer will follow through on its rhetoric.

While both Trump and KCNA issued deterrent threats, the quality of the threats are markedly different. Trump’s threat is incredibly vague both in terms of what the threat is trying to prevent and what costs the United States would inflict on North Korea in response. A lack of clarity about what Trump wants to deter could prevent North Korea from taking any escalatory actions, but given the high stakes involved for North Korea it is unlikely to view Trump’s threat as credible. Kim Jong Un will keep making nuclear threats because the vulnerability of the United States to nuclear attack deters America from attacking North Korea in the first place.

Ambiguous deterrent threats can work, but such threats are not usually issued by powerful countries. Meanwhile, the uncertainty created by Trump’s comment is not reassuring to the other parties involved in the North Korea issue. The “fire and fury” statement could complicate relationships with U.S. allies if they feel that Trump’s rhetoric increases the likelihood of escalating the crisis and putting their security at risk. Additionally, efforts to convince China to do more to help the United States solve the North Korea problem could suffer if Trump’s rhetoric is seen as an indication of unpredictable U.S. policy.

Will Public Aversion to Casualties Constrain Trump’s War-Making Instincts?

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is doing everything in his power to ensure that he remains atop the United States’ enemies list. For months, his government has been test-launching missiles and issuing threats. This week the rhetoric got even hotter. President Trump pledged to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea. The North Koreans responded with a promise to attack the U.S. base at Guam.

Notwithstanding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statements last week and in April that the United States does not seek regime change in Pyongyang, other tin-pot dictators have heard similar assurances before. If KJU doesn’t want to go the way of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, he’ll hold onto his nukes.

Unsurprisingly, hawks in Washington – who don’t like being so deterred – are urging President Trump to launch a preventive war, and denude the latest Crazy Kim of his dangerous toys.

For example, John Bolton explained last week that, since diplomacy is unlikely to be successful, Trump has only three options: “pre-emptively strike at Pyongyang’s known nuclear facilities, ballistic-missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases”; “wait until a missile is poised for launch toward America, and then destroy it”; or launch “airstrikes or [deploy] special forces to decapitate North Korea’s national command authority, sowing chaos, and then sweep in on the ground from South Korea to seize Pyongyang, nuclear assets, key military sites and other territory.”

To summarize: small war now, small war later, or big war now. And, of the middle option, Bolton warns that a preemptive strike would “provide more time but at the cost of increased risk” and that “Intelligence is never perfect” – so that leaves war now (or soon).

Bolton grudgingly admitted “All these scenarios pose dangers for South Korea, especially civilians in Seoul,” and that “The U.S. should obviously seek South Korea’s agreement (and Japan’s) before using force, but no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.”  

Along similar lines, Lindsey Graham explained “Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California, maybe other parts of America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un],” Graham continued, “it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.”

Even Poor People Should Be Allowed to Make Bail

Maranda O’Donnell was arrested for driving with a suspended license and bail was set at the prescheduled amount of $2,500, which she could not pay. Ms. O’Donnell was not alone in having bail set at an amount that could not be paid. Robert Ford’s bail was set at $5,000 for misdemeanor theft of property and Loetha McGruder’s bail was set at $5,000 for the misdemeanor of giving a false name to a police officer. There are many other such examples; all of these bail amounts were set according to a predetermined schedule based on the offense. None of the defendants could afford the bail and so were forced to stay in jail.

According to one report, 81% of misdemeanor arrestees in Harris County (Houston), Texas, were unable to post bail at booking, and 40% were never able to post bail. Ms. O’Donnell sued Harris County and various government officials on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated for violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses by setting bail amounts higher than defendants could pay, which detained indigent people much longer than those financially able to pay.

The federal district court found that the predetermined bail schedule was treated as a “nearly irrebuttable presumption in favor of applying secured money bail at the prescheduled amount.” Further, the court found that Harris County did not even provide “timely hearings” to prove their inability to pay or even the reasons why defendants were being denied a bail they could paid. The court issued a preliminary injunction ordering the county to release misdemeanor defendants on personal bond—not secured by cash in advance—within 24 hours of being arrested.

The county appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where Cato has now filed an amicus brief supporting the injunction based on the history of bail.

Bail has ancient roots going back to before Magna Carta. Even before the United States existed, English courts required that bail be set on an individualized basis based on the financial ability of the defendant. When the king’s sheriffs issued bail that was too high to be paid, the prohibition on excessive bail was created in the English Bill of Rights, which was then incorporated into the U.S. Constitution in the Eighth Amendment. As both the Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit held in 1835, “to require larger bail than the prisoner could give would be to require excessive bail, and to deny bail” in violation of the Constitution. This was the understanding in America for more than 100 years after the Founding.

The modern Supreme Court has continued to recognize the protection that these ancient requirements for bail provide: “In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” United States v. Salerno (1987). These long-standing bail customs require an individualized determination of the bail amount, which was not provided by Harris County, violating the defendants’ right to the due process of law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fifth Circuit should maintain the preliminary injunction in O’Donnell v. Harris County.

Sorry, Not All Americans Want Government-Mandated Paid Family Leave

In a recent column, AEI scholar Abby McCloskey claims that “[m]ost people on the right and on the left” want government-sponsored paid family leave. McCloskey links to an admiring summary of a 2016 public opinion poll as evidence.

The summary does not provide the associated poll topline (questionnaire), but Morning Consult kindly provided some questions upon request. They included “Do you support or oppose requiring employers to offer paid parental leave for new parents?” and “if the federal government required employers to offer paid parental leave for new parents, how long should that leave be?”

Unfortunately, the poll’s questions are not sound from a psychology of survey response perspective. As analysts know, the question’s language makes an enormous difference in poll results. When people are asked whether or not they would like a particular benefit sans the process or cost, many will respond affirmatively.

But if costs are mentioned, public opinion transforms (see polling on healthcare for example). As a result, polling can be confusing at best and calculated to elicit certain responses at worst. In the first question, the Morning Consult poll does not describe who will be requiring employers to provide paid family leave or how they will do so. It does not mention tradeoffs. In the second question it asks respondents to accept that government is providing paid leave and then pick the length.

Usually it would be hard to know how much the absence of the “whos” or “hows” mattered for the results. But fortunately, Pew Research asked the same questions and made the details explicit.

Specifically, Pew asked whether A) the federal government should require employers to provide paid family leave or B) employers should be able to decide for themselves whether to provide paid family leave. 

Pew found “there is no consensus,” and public opinion was split evenly. Contrary to McCloskey’s summary article which claims political parties unanimously approve of a government mandate for paid family leave, Pew described public opinion as being divided along political lines. Democrats were the only group where a majority strongly favored the lightest of paid family leave measures; using government tax credits as an incentive for employers to provide paid leave. 

pew research poll graphicFar from being a top policy priority, another recent Pew poll suggests that “expanding access to paid family and medical leave ranks at the bottom of a list of 21 policy items.”  7 of 10 workers (69%) are at least somewhat satisfied with the benefits their employer already provides, and Americans prioritize other issues over creating an entitlement to a benefit most already receive63% of workers who took parental, family, or medical leave say their employer paid for part or all of it.

It seems that the public is divided after all. That said, do Americans like or want paid family leave benefits? Of course, and when asked they say so. But the right question is not whether they like or desire leave, but whether they desire federal involvement. The answer is often “no.”

Ten Irrational and Infuriating Aspects of U.S. Legal Immigration

One fortunate aspect of President Trump’s bill to reduce legal immigration by 50 percent is that it has started the conversation on how to reform the nation’s legal immigration system—even if it started it on the wrong foot. Members of Congress now have an opportunity to respond with legislation that would increase legal immigration and fix the various problems with the system, which are numerous.

1) Employment-based quotas haven’t changed since 1990, even as the economy doubled in size. Unlike many other countries, the legislative branch establishes hard ceilings on immigration, rather than flexible targets or administratively determined limits. In 1990, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990, which established the current limit at 140,000 visas for immigrants whom employers sponsor for legal permanent residency. Since then, U.S. real Gross Domestic Product increased from 8.9 trillion to 17 trillion. At the same time, the computer and Internet revolutions transformed the economy, yet the quota remained the same.

  • Congress should double the 1990 employment-based quota to at least 280,000 and index the quota to GDP growth. Senators Ron Johnson and John McCain incorporate GDP indexing in their State-Sponsored Pilot Program Act, which would allow states to sponsor temporary workers (see p. 24).

2) Half the quota for immigrant workers is filled by family. Of the 140,000 employer-sponsored visas, sponsored employees actually use less than half. That’s because the George H.W. Bush administration in 1991 adopted an interpretation of the law that found that spouses and children of the immigrants—who are entitled to a visa with the primary applicant as well—count against the quota. As I’ve written before, it is far from clear that this is the correct interpretation of the law, but it makes little sense in any case. The quota is targeting the number of workers that the economy needs. Why should married workers take away slots from other applicants? If the quota is hit after a worker receives his visa but before his family does, why should we separate them? For these reasons, all temporary worker categories exempt spouses and children from those caps.

  • Congress should clarify that spouses and children of immigrant workers do not count against the green card limits. This would require amending 8 U.S.C. 1153(d) with a statement that the visas or status issued under that subsection don’t reduce the number of visas available to primary applicants.

Will the Pentagon Get a Big Budget Increase?

CSBA’s Katherine Blakeley has published a brief but highly informative analysis of the prospects for a major military spending boost.

Bottom line up front: The combination of “procedural and political hurdles” in Congress make an increase along the lines of what the Trump administration requested (approx. $54 billion) unlikely. The substantially larger increases passed out of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (roughly $30–33 billion more than the president’s request) seem even more fanciful.

Blakeley concludes:

The wide gulfs between the political parties, and between the defense hawks and the fiscal hawks, will not be closed soon. Additionally, the full legislative calendar of the Congress before September 30, 2017, including Obamacare repeal, FY 2018 appropriations, and an impending debt ceiling debate, increase the likelihood that FY 2018 will begin with a several-month-long continuing resolution, rather than a substantial increase in defense spending.  

This aligns with what I’ve suspected all along – but Blakeley provides critical details to back up her conclusions.

For years now, we’ve heard defense hawks say that adequately funding the defense budget shouldn’t be a struggle for a country as wealthy as the United States. A mere 4 percent of GDP, for example, should be a piece of cake. And, at one level, that is absolutely correct. It should be easy. But when you dig into it, as Blakeley has done, you discover that even 3 percent is a real struggle. After all, $50 billion – a rounding error in a $19 trillion economy – threatened to bring the entire budget process to a screeching halt in late June, and may do so again.

If and when a final budget deal is hammered out, the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account may provide at least some of the additional billions that the HASC and the SASC want. Because OCO is exempted from the bipartisan Budget Control Act’s spending caps, additional defense dollars do not have to come at the expense of non-defense discretionary spending, as President Trump’s budget proposed.

But many billions from the Pentagon’s base budget (i.e. non-war spending) have been shoved into the OCO for years now, and the gimmick is starting to wear thin – after all, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked years ago. The voices in Congress and beyond who pushed the BCA in the first place, and who remain committed to reducing the deficit (e.g. current OMB chief Mick Mulvaney), are likely to feel that they’re being played.

The defense vs. non-defense spending debate is, and always has been, about politics, not math. And it isn’t obvious that the Pentagon will win this political battle. Given this uncertainty, we should adapt our military’s objectives to the means available to achieve them. We should prioritize U.S. security and defending vital national interests, and approach foreign adventures that don’t advance these interests with great caution. Expecting our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to do the same – or more – with less money isn’t fair to them, and isn’t likely to work.

This Is No Time to Panic

The rising opioid overdose death rate is a serious problem and deserves serious attention. Yesterday, during his working vacation, President Trump convened a group of experts to give him a briefing on the issue and to suggest further action. Some, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who heads the White House Drug Addiction Task Force, are calling for him to declare a “national public health emergency.” But calling it a “national emergency” is not helpful. It only fosters an air of panic, which all-too-often leads to hastily conceived policy decisions that are not evidence-based, and have deleterious unintended consequences.

While most states have made the opioid overdose antidote naloxone more readily available to patients and first responders, policies have mainly focused on health care practitioners trying to help their patients suffering from genuine pain, as well as efforts to cut back on the legal manufacture of opioid drugs.

For example, 49 states have established Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) that monitor the prescriptions written by providers and filled by patients. These programs are aimed at getting physicians to reduce their prescription rate so they are not “outliers” in comparison with their peers. And they alert prescribers of patients who have filled multiple prescriptions within a given timeframe. In some states, the number of opioids that may be prescribed for most conditions is limited to a 7-day supply.

The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to seek ways to reduce the number of opioids produced legally, hoping to negatively impact the supply to the illegal market.

Meanwhile, as patients suffer needlessly, many in desperation seek relief in the illegal market where they are exposed to dangerous, often adulterated or tainted drugs, and oftentimes to heroin.

The CDC has reported that opioid prescriptions are consistently coming down, while the overdose rate keeps climbing and the drug predominantly responsible is now heroin. But the proposals we hear are more of the same.

We need a calmer, more deliberate and thoughtful reassessment of our policy towards the use of both licit and illicit drugs. Calling it a “national emergency” is not the way to do that.

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