Archives: 09/2017

Scaring Ourselves to Death over Impeachment

Richard Cohen’s latest column is sillier than usual, which is really saying something. (Hat tip to Jason Kuznicki, who sums up Cohen’s argument as “Trump is SO bad that we must not impeach him.”)

In purple, paid-by-the-metaphor prose, Cohen calls our 45th president “a dust storm of lies and diversions with the bellows of a bully and the greasy ethics of a street-corner hustler,” someone whose “possible crimes line up like boxcars being assembled for a freight train.” And yet, “we would impeach Trump at our peril.” 

Why? Because the president’s hardcore supporters would view impeachment and removal as the reversal of a democratic election. Worse, some of them—possibly with Trump’s encouragement—might resort to violence. We could see “a lot of angry people causing a lot of mayhem” if Trump is impeached and removed for an offense falling “short of a triple ax murder,” Cohen warns. 

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here

Put aside the notion—itself anti-democratic—that a violent minority should enjoy a sort of heckler’s veto on a legitimate constitutional process: Cohen’s vision of Weimar-era street brawls is almost certainly overblown. The political science blog hosted by Cohen’s own paper recently poured some cold water on the Trumpist-insurrection scenario here.

Still, Cohen’s trepidation about any impeachment effort—even against a president he believes wholly corrupt and dangerous—is all too common. What other constitutional provision is considered so near-blasphemous to merit its own sanitized euphemism? Treason’s a big deal, but you don’t hear people calling it the “’T’-word.”

Yet on the rare occasions that the “‘I’-word” becomes a live issue—once a generation at best—the commentariat adopts a funereal tone, insisting that such a dire remedy should only be approached in fear and trembling. We can be almost certain that something horrible will happen.

It’s not just workaday columnists, but leading constitutional scholars who hyperbolize about impeachment. Charles Black, in his classic 1973 primer Impeachment: A Handbook, writes of the “the dreadfulness of the step of removal… the deep wounding such a step must inflict on the country.” It should, Black wrote, be looked on as “high-risk major surgery.” Actually, it’s a “constitutional nuclear weapon,” legal scholar Ronald Dworkin argued during the Clinton affair, to be used only in the “gravest emergencies,” lest it “shatter the most fundamental principles of our constitutional structure.”

More recently, Lawfare’s Jane Chong wrote a valuable essay on impeachment’s scope, in which she warns that “when the president has proven himself unfit for the office,” shrinking from removal “is no less a partisan dereliction of duty than unduly clamoring for [it].” But, she insists, impeachment is “nothing to celebrate and no better than a crime against our collective vessel, an act of barratry, when pursued for the wrong reasons…. It also involves a measure of violence from which our constitutional democracy can only slowly and by no means inevitably recover.”

Is impeachment really as grave as all that?

A Self-Determination Façade: The Kurdish Referendum

On September 25, 2017, Iraqi Kurds voted in favor of independence from Iraq in a historic referendum. Out of the 3.3 million Kurds and non-Kurds who voted, 92% voted in favor of independence, which is not surprising. The international community’s reaction is also not surprising: Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Russia, France,  and the United States were all against the referendum, cautioning the Kurdish leadership about the regional impact from various strategic angles. In its quest to secure more non-Arab allies, Israel is the only country that has backed the referendum. The international community’s lack of support is seen as hypocritical by the Kurds, and may very well be. The United States in particular is wary of the creation of new states and their regional impact that tends to increase instability rather than reduce it, like in the case of South Sudan. While discouraging a population from seeking self-determination is thorny—even illiberal—the Kurdish referendum has two important outcomes that should not, be ignored.

First, the referendum has sent a dangerous mixed signal to other populations seeking independence and territorial sovereignty. Currently there are no administrative channels in place that will facilitate Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq—and it certainly cannot be called Kexit in the same vain as Brexit, the nickname for the UK’s vote to exit the EU. For example, Iraq still controls the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KRI) air space and immediately following the referendum, instituted a flight ban from the region’s two international airports. KRI is not economically independent, and the referendum may have actually decreased its chances of becoming so. Even though Kurdistan has been producing 600,000 barrels of oil per day, an impressive feat for a landlocked region surrounded by hostile neighbors, low oil prices gravely impacted the development of its public sector that continues to remain weak and corrupt. Also, Kurds still hold Iraqi passports, and will most likely continue to be Iraqis officially for years to come, if not decades. So how exactly secession will happen is not clear. Therefore, it would be beneficial for other independence-seeking populations like Palestinians, Kashmiris, and Catalonians to pay close attention to how Kurdish independence unfolds, if at all. So then why was the referendum done now? There is speculation that the Kurdistan region’s president, Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, wanted his legacy to be putting Kurds on an internationally mandated path to independence. But Kurds are divided; while a majority of them want independence, many feel that is was not the right time, such as the “No for Now” campaign. In the presence of strong criticism from the international community, the referendum’s claim of providing a mandate for Kurdish independence is also questionable.

Second, the referendum has backed the United States in a corner. U.S. foreign policy has been driven by the idea that a unified Iraq is a better regional and counterterrorism partner than a divided one. In its quest to counter the Islamic State, the United States has often sided with Baghdad over Erbil. Yet, the Peshmerga, the KRI’s military force, has been one of the most effective fighting groups against ISIS, and played a crucial role during the battle of Mosul in 2016. But supporting Kurdish independence would have two negative consequences for the United States: 1) it would create a rift with Turkey, a key NATO ally at a time when the U.S.–Turkish relationship is already strained, and 2) U.S.–Iraq relations could weaken, which would be detrimental not only for Iraq’s stability but also for the region’s. Instead, this is a time for the U.S. to tread lightly and practice restraint. Whether or not the Trump administration will heed this advice will become apparent in the upcoming weeks. 

The Trump Administration Isn’t Sabotaging ObamaCare—That Was Democrats

To the relief of many Democrats and the consternation of many Republicans, Congress will not be repealing ObamaCare this month. But that doesn’t mean Democrats are riding high or that ObamaCare is doing well. Premiums are still rising rapidly (Miami Herald: ”Obamacare Premiums in Florida to Rise 45 Percent on Average Next Year”), insurers are still leaving the Exchanges (Healthcare Marketplace: “Nearly Half of the Country Left with One Carrier Option in 2018”), and ObamaCare coverage is still becoming a worse and worse deal for the sick (Wall Street Journal/yours truly: “How ObamaCare Punishes the Sick”). 

Now that repeal is no longer an immediate threat, the conversation has naturally turned to who’s to blame for ObamaCare’s failings. Democrats claim everything was going swimmingly until the Trump administration came along and began sabotaging the law. The funny thing about that line of attack is that’s if it were true, then Democrats’ real complaint would be that voters are sabotaging ObamaCare.

But it’s not true—and reporters should stop repeating this partisan line of attack as if it were. Here are five crucial points:

  • The Trump administration is not causing the instability we are seeing in the Exchanges—ObamaCare is. Specifically, ObamaCare’s community rating price controls have both unleashed adverse selection (sick people enroll, healthy people don’t) and are making coverage worse for the sick (as insurers use plan design to deter the sickest from choosing their plans). There are only two ways to deal with that instability: eliminate community rating, or subsidize the heck out of insurers (either explicitly, or implicitly by encouraging healthy people to enroll).
  • The Trump administration is not stoking the instability ObamaCare is creating in the Exchanges. Democrats claim that by not ending the uncertainty surrounding cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, and by not investing in enrollment activities as much as the Obama administration did, it is in fact the Trump administration that is creating or exacerbating that instability. That is false. As noted above, it is ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls that are creating this instability, not the Trump administration’s actions. The administration is not even adding to the instability. To do so, it would have to make ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls even more binding, which would exacerbate adverse selection. The worst you can say about those actions is that the Trump administration is failing to mitigate the instability ObamaCare creates, which brings us to our next point. 
  • The Trump administration does not have a duty to reduce the instability ObamaCare creates, or to reduce the uncertainty ObamaCare creates, or to make ObamaCare “work.” The Trump administration’s only duty is to execute the law faithfully. So long as it does, it has the prerogative to pursue its political goals however it wants. I’m not aware of anyone accusing the Trump administration of not following the law in its handling of ObamaCare. 
  • Reporters who say the Trump administration is causing or stoking instability in the Exchanges are simply regurgitating partisan talking points. Embedded in that claim is the normative, disputed, and ultimately false premise that the Trump administration somehow has an obligation not just to follow the law, but to make ObamaCare “work.” That is a pretty radical notion, because it implies ObamaCare opponents don’t have a right to use lawful means to press their views through the political process. 

In Afghanistan, the Withdrawal of U.S. Troops Is Long Overdue

Donald Trump announced a mini-surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan a month ago. This week the Long War Journal reported the Taliban now control or contest 45 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, up from 40 percent three months prior, which was an increase from 34 percent a year earlier, and you get the idea. The Taliban control more territory today than at any point since 2001, and they have the momentum.

Sixteen years after invading Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban, and routing Al Qaeda elements there, U.S. goals remain as far out of reach as ever.

However, rather than surge additional forces and fall victim to the “sunk cost” fallacy, the U.S. should withdraw military forces and re-align objectives to the threat and national interests. During his August speech, Donald Trump defended the surge by saying, “our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.” His emotional appeal implied that grieving Gold Star families should be the nation’s impetus for continued involvement in the Afghan war (which would also lead to more families who would experience that ultimate loss).

Instead of defending a surge on the basis of efforts already spent, U.S. policy towards Afghanistan should rely on the 16 years of data available since initiation of the war on terror. All of that data strongly communicates two points: 1) the terror threat to Americans remains low and 2) a strategy that emphasizes military power will continue to fail.

FAIR’s “Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration” Study Is Fatally Flawed

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is devoted to reducing legal and illegal immigration. Its recent report, “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers (2017)” by Matthew O’Brien, Spencer Raley, and Jack Martin, estimates that the net fiscal costs of illegal immigration to U.S. taxpayers is $116 billion. FAIR’s report reaches that conclusion by vastly overstating the costs of illegal immigration, undercounting the tax revenue they generate, inflating the number of illegal immigrants, counting millions of U.S. citizens as illegal immigrants, and by concocting a method of estimating the fiscal costs that is rejected by all economists who work on this subject. 

FAIR’s Errors

Merely using the correct numbers when it comes to the actual size of the illegal immigrant population, the correct tax rates, and the effect of immigrants on property values lowers the net fiscal cost by 87 percent to 97 percent, down to $15.6 billion or $3.3 billion, respectively.  Below is a list of FAIR’s errors and how the correct numbers affect the results:

  1. FAIR assumes that there are 12.5 million illegal immigrants, over a million more than other organizations estimate (FAIR is inconsistent here as the number of illegal immigrants they report on page 34 is 12.6 million).  Pew estimates there are 11.3 million illegal immigrants, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) estimates that there are 11 million illegal immigrants, and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) estimates there are 11.43 million illegal immigrants.  FAIR’s estimate of the number of illegal immigrants is more than a million more than that of their sister organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, that also shares their goal of reducing immigration.  Using the average number of illegal immigrants as estimated by Pew, CMS, and CIS instead of FAIR’s number lowers their report’s estimated cost by $11.6 billion.

Is It “Banning” To Reject the Book in the First Place?

We hear a lot about book “banning,” especially when “we” maintain Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, but probably lots of other people hear it, too. Indeed, it just so happens that we are in Banned Books Week right now, an event that highlights challenges to books stocked by public libraries, including in public schools. But what is suddenly getting attention is not the Week, but a Cambridge, Massachusetts public school librarian rejecting a bunch of Dr. Seuss books that First Lady Melania Trump selected the district to win. Which raises two questions: Is it not just as much “banning” when public librarians choose not to stock books as when parents or citizens ask that those already stocked be removed? And isn’t it a threat to basic freedom to have librarians or anyone else decide for taxpayer-funded institutions—government institutions—what constitutes acceptable art or thought?

The first answer is of course it is just as much “banning” for public institutions to reject books in the first place as to remove them later on. The ultimate result is the same: not making a book available for the public to borrow. Of course, this is not really banning, which would be to prohibit people from reading a book at all—making it illegal to purchase or possess—not refusing to let people borrow it for free. But if people want to misapply the term, they should misapply it equally.

Which takes us to the root problem: Public institutions force all taxpayers to fund decisions by other people about what books are valuable, or age appropriate, or just plain morally upright. We are forcing them to fund someone else’s speech and opinions, even if they find that speech or those opinions offensive, or just wrong, and even if their views are rejected.

Hidden Tax Hike in GOP Plan?

The Republican tax framework released yesterday was generally excellent. However, it appears to include a sneaky and invisible tax hike. The framework “envisions the use of a more accurate measure of inflation for purposes of indexing the tax brackets and other tax parameters.”

The individual income tax is indexed for inflation, meaning that the dollar split points between the rate brackets and other parameters are set to rise a bit each year. Without those adjustments, Americans would lose ground to the government over time, as more of their income would be taxed at higher rates due to the general rise in prices.

Current indexing is based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI overstates inflation somewhat, so some analysts have suggested switching tax-code indexing to chained CPI, which produces a lower inflation measure.

If Republicans indexed the tax code to chained CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time. The Tax Foundation has a brief on the issue here.

Switching tax-code indexing to a lower measure of inflation is a bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would generate a substantial tax increase over time, and it would be an invisible increase because there would be no tax-filing changes for people to notice.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push people into higher brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to slowly and steadily increase marginal tax rates.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes people into higher tax brackets over time, called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets, since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth.

Long-range projections from the Congressional Budget Office reflect substantial increases in taxes over time from real bracket creep. The agency notes:

… if current laws remained generally unchanged, real bracket creep would continue to gradually push up taxes relative to income over the next three decades. That phenomenon occurs because most income tax brackets, exemptions, and other tax thresholds are indexed only to inflation. If income grows faster than inflation, as generally occurs when the economy is growing, tax receipts grow faster than income.

So, I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to a “more accurate measure of inflation,” as Republicans are suggesting: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax-code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax-rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

More on tax reform here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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