201712

December 14, 2017 11:14AM

Food Stamp Reform in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the costliest welfare programs at about $70 billion a year. Not only is it costly, but a large share of the benefits are not used as intended.

Recipients are supposed to use SNAP or food stamp benefits to “make healthy food choices” and “obtain a more nutritious diet.” But it turns out that about $15 billion of food stamp spending goes for junk food, such as candy and cola. Many recipients are not making the nutritious choices the government intends.

The Trump administration is expected to pursue welfare reforms next year, and trimming food stamp benefits is one priority. The Washington Post says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

is considering proposals to let states impose new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy and require SNAP candidates to apply in person, according to the Secretaries Innovation Group (SIG), which represents state social service secretaries from 20 Republican administrations. The agency is also considering a proposal to allow states to reduce payments to some groups of people, including undocumented immigrants' citizen children.

… In the past, the USDA has rejected requests from states to take some of the actions SIG has suggested, particularly limiting the types of foods that people can buy with food stamps.

… One of the more controversial proposals involves a recommendation that the USDA ban “harmful” foods, such as soda and candy, from being purchased with food stamps. SIG also proposes that the program allow the purchase of only specific, “approved” foods, similar to what the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program does.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intended to subsidize nutrition for needy families,” reads SIG's proposal, which was submitted to the USDA and Republican congressional leadership, and obtained by The Post. “However, too many recipients are utilizing their benefit to purchase items that are not only void of nutrition, they are damaging to their health.”

The article says “SNAP is America's largest anti-hunger program,” but the main food-related health problem for low-income households today is not hunger, but obesity. Americans with low incomes are more obese than people with high incomes, on average. In general, people with low incomes are not suffering from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food.

So ending SNAP’s subsidies for junk food would be a pro-nutrition way to cut demand for the program and reduce taxpayer costs. Federal reforms to allow states to restrict benefits would move in the right direction. If food stamps could be only used for items such as fruits and vegetables, it is possible that fewer people would use the program and costs would fall.

For more on federal food subsidies, see here.

December 13, 2017 4:26PM

All I Want for Christmas…Is a BRAC

Five successive Secretaries of Defense have asked Congress for permission to reduce excess and unnecessary military bases. The fairest and most transparent way to make such cuts is through another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. So far, however, the SecDefs' requests have gone unanswered. For their sake, but mostly for the sake of the men and women serving in our armed forces, I want one, too. All I want for Christmas is a BRAC.

According to the Pentagon's latest estimates, the military as a whole has 19 percent excess base capacity. If it helps to visualize the nature of the problem, nearly 1 in every 5 facilities that DoD operates are superfluous to U.S. national security, or their functions could be consolidated into other facilities elsewhere. This is important because requiring the military to carry so much overhead necessarily compels the services to divert resources away from more important things -- from salaries and benefits for military personnel, to maintenance and upkeep for their equipment, and even to the purchase of new gear.

As Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in congressional testimony earlier this year

Of all the efficiency measures the Department has undertaken over the years, BRAC is one of the most successful and significant – we forecast that a properly focused base closure effort will generate $2 billion or more annually – enough to buy 300 Apache attack helicopters, 120 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, or four Virginia-class submarines.

There are two leading arguments against a BRAC, but neither is very convincing. The first envisions a vastly larger military -- especially a larger Army -- and concludes that a BRAC at this time would be premature because it would deny some hypothetical future military the land and other facilities it needs in order to train and operate effectively.

But BRAC rounds don't eliminate every square inch of infrastructure not deemed essential in the present-day; they merely grant the Pentagon the authority to more efficiently allocate scarce resources, and respond to changing circumstances. Each of the past five BRAC rounds have cut an average of about 5 percent excess capacity. The military will always retain a surplus as a hedge against future contingencies. 

What's more, the latest estimate was constructed around the force structure from 2012, when the U.S. military was engaged in major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given other pressures on the defense budget, and federal spending in general, it seems highly unlikely that the military will grow back to 2012 levels. But in the extreme scenario in which the military's needs are dramatically greater than at any time in the recent past, I'm confident that the federal government could obtain what it needs. After all, the U.S. military was tiny for most of our history, and yet we somehow managed to find new locations for bases when they were truly needed for the nation's security (e.g., World War II).   

The second argument against BRAC has less to do with the military's requirements, and is more about the impact of base closures on local communities. For the Pentagon, BRAC is like a shiny package wrapped with a bow under the Christmas tree. For locals, BRAC is a lump of coal in the stocking.

Except that we shouldn't look at BRAC in this way. To be sure, base closures are disruptive to communities that have grown dependent upon the economic activity that a base generates. A few places have struggled to adapt after their local base closed and the troops moved away. But the actual experiences of defense communities reveal a more complex, and ultimately more optimistic, reality. Most communities are able to find more productive uses for properties previously trapped behind fences and barbed wire. Most are able to attract new businesses, from a diverse array of industries. Some have taken pride in granting the public access to newly open space. The array of uses for former bases is practically limitless (see, for example, Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, TexasBrunswick, MaineGlenview, Illinois; and Philadephia, Pennsylvania). A future BRAC round could be less disruptive than in the past if affected communities plan well, take account of lessons learned elsewhere, and apply some best practices to ease the transition.

As Secretary Mattis practically pleaded in a cover letter to the most recent report:

every unnecessary facility we maintain requires us to cut capabilities elsewhere. I must be able to eliminate excess infrastructure in order to shift resources to readiness and modernization.

If Congress doesn't grant his wish, perhaps Secretary Mattis will climb onto Santa Claus's lap, and whisper his desires into the jolly old elf's ear -- but I hope, for both men's sake, it doesn't come to that.

December 13, 2017 8:39AM

Justice Department Tackles Rule By Guidance Letter

The U.S. Department of Justice, November 17 [press release/memo]:

Today, in an action to further uphold the rule of law in the executive branch, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo prohibiting the Department of Justice from issuing guidance documents that have the effect of adopting new regulatory requirements or amending the law. The memo prevents the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations.

In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies have blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents. Under the Attorney General’s memo, the Department may no longer issue guidance documents that purport to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch….

“Guidance documents can be used to explain existing law,” Associate Attorney General Brand said. “But they should not be used to change the law or to impose new standards to determine compliance with the law. The notice-and-comment process that is ordinarily required for rulemaking can be cumbersome and slow, but it has the benefit of availing agencies of more complete information about a proposed rule’s effects than the agency could ascertain on its own. This Department of Justice will not use guidance documents to circumvent the rulemaking process, and we will proactively work to rescind existing guidance documents that go too far.”

This is an initiative of potentially great significance. For many decades, critics have noted that agencies were using Dear Colleague and guidance letters, memos and so forth — also known variously as subregulatory guidance, stealth regulation and regulatory dark matter — to grab new powers and ban new things in the guise of interpreting existing law, all while bypassing notice-and-comment and other constraints on actual rulemaking. To be sure, many judgment calls and hard questions of classification do arise as to when an announced position occupies new territory as opposed to simply stating in good faith what current law is believed to be. But the full text of the memo shows a creditable awareness of these issues. Note also, even before the Justice memo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s statement in September, on revoking the Obama Title IX Dear Colleague letter: “The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.”

Another notable pledge in the DoJ press release:

The Attorney General’s Regulatory Reform Task Force, led by Associate Attorney General Brand, will conduct a review of existing Department documents and will recommend candidates for repeal or modification in the light of this memo’s principles.

Note also this recent flap over certain financial regulations and the possibility that they may have been issued without notice to Congress, which could preserve Congress’s right to examine and block them under the terms of the Congressional Review Act. [cross-posted from Overlawyered; earlier in this space on the era of "rule by letter" at the Education Department]

December 12, 2017 8:47PM

One in a Billion Chance a Year of Being Killed by a Chain Immigrant in a Terror Attack

Yesterday, Bangladesh-born Akayed Ullah attempted a suicide bombing in New York City.  Fortunately, he only injured a few people and severely burned his own torso.  Ullah entered the United States on an F4 green card for the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

Some are using Ullah’s failed terrorist attack to call for further restricting family-based immigration and the green card lottery.  After hearing about the failed terrorist attack, President Trump argued that “Today's terror suspect entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security . . . Congress must end chain migration.”  Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also argued for ending chain immigration and the visa lottery program.  He said ending those green card programs “would make us safer.”

Neither President Trump nor Rep. Goodlatte indicated how much safer ending chain immigration or the diversity visa would make us.  Since September 2016, I have been updating information on the number of people killed in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil by foreign-born terrorists according to the visa they initially used to enter the United States.

From 1975 through December 11, 2017, foreign-born terrorists who entered on a green card murdered 16 people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.  Assuming all of those green cards were issued in the family reunification categories or through the diveristy visa lottery, the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a chain immigrant or a diversity visa recipient was about 1 in 723 million per year.  The chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide during that time is about 1 in 14,394 per year.  In other words, your annual chance of being murdered in a normal homicide is about 50,220 times greater than being killed in a terrorist attack by a chain immigrant or an immigrant who entered through the diversity visa lottery.

At least six of those victims were Argentinians here on a tourist visa, leaving 10 Americans as victims.  If we take American nationalists at their word and only consider the harm of foreign-born terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens, then we would have to exclude those six victims of terrorist attacks by chain immigrants and diversity visa winners.  This crazy nationalist calculus means that the annual chance of an American or a resident of the United States being murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil committed by a chain immigrant or diversity visa winner is about 1 in 1.2 billion per year.  Your annual chance of being murdered in a normal homicide is about 80,352 times greater than your chance being killed in a terrorist attack by a chain immigrant or an immigrant who entered through the diversity visa lottery.

Of the 3,037 people murdered in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during that time, about 98 percent perished in the 9/11 attacks.  Foreign-born terrorists who entered on tourist and student visas account for 99 percent of all murders committed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil since 1975.  The annual chance of being murdered by any foreign-born terrorist during that time is about 1 in 3.8 million per year.

The 1 in 723 million chance a year of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist who came in as a chain immigrant or on a diversity visa is the greatest possible risk, as I assume that all terrorists who entered on green cards did so through one of those two paths.  These numbers could change in the future and perhaps chain immigrants or those who entered on the diversity visa will become especially dangerous at some future date. That, however, is thin support for Trump’s policy proposal to remove about 400,000 green cards annually.  Whatever other merits could accrue from reforming chain immigration or the diversity visa, security is not a serious one as the danger is already so low.

December 12, 2017 6:10PM

Muslim Ban? Fewer Muslim Refugees, Immigrants, and Travelers Enter U.S. in 2017

During his campaign, President Trump promised to ban all Muslims outright until he could figure out "what is going on." He later explained that this idea had developed into several policies that would have the same effect. Since his inauguration, Trump has begun to implement them—they include slashing the refugee program, banning all immigration and travelers from several majority Muslim countries, and imposing new burdens on all visa applicants as part of “extreme vetting” initiatives. So far, these policies appear to have “worked,” strongly reducing Muslim immigration and travel to the United States.

Muslim refugee admissions have fallen dramatically over the past year. According to figures from the State Department, Muslim refugee flows fell 94 percent from January to November 2017 (the last full month of available data). In calendar 2016, the United States admitted almost 45,000 Muslim refugees, compared to a little more than 11,000 in 2017—fully half of those entered in January and February. Of course, the administration has cut refugee flows generally, but the Muslim share of all refugees has dropped substantially too—from 50 percent in January to less than 10 percent in November.

Figure 1
Monthly Muslim Refugee Admissions for Each Month of 2017 and Average for 2016


 

Media Name: muslimrefugees1.png

Source: U.S. Department of State *Monthly average, **Through December 11, 2017

This year’s drop is even more substantial when compared with the trend. In only one year over the last decade has the number of Muslim refugee admissions fallen, and Muslim admissions have increased on average 18 percent annually from 2007 to 2016.

As for foreign travelers and immigrants seeking to live permanently in the United States, the State Department does not ask on its visa application form about their religious affiliation (thankfully). But based on the number of visas issued to nationals of the nearly 50 majority Muslim countries, it certainly appears that the Trump administration policies have affected them as well.

America issues two types of visas—“immigrant” for permanent residents and “nonimmigrant” for temporary residents—mainly tourists, guest workers, and students. For Muslim majority countries, the average monthly permanent visa issuances during the period of March to October 2017 (the only months that are available so far) dropped 13 percent from the monthly average in FY 2016. Average monthly visa issuances for temporary residents—tourists, guest workers, and students—from majority Muslim countries have dropped 21 percent from the FY 2016 monthly average.

Figure 2
Average Monthly Visa Issuances—Permanent and Temporary—2016 and 2017

Media Name: muslimrefugees2.png

Sources: U.S. Department of State, “Monthly Nonimmigrant Visa Issuance Statistics”; “Monthly Immigrant Visa Issuance Statistics”; “Nonimmigrant Visas Issued by Nationality”; "Immigrant Visas Issued

During the last decade, majority Muslim countries have never—even during the recession—seen temporary visa issuances fall by more than 1 percent in a single year and immigrant visas never more than 7 percent. From 2007 to 2016, temporary visa approvals for nationals of these countries actually grew 8 percent annually and permanent visas 9 percent annually. Again, compared to the expected increases, the declines are even more remarkable.

Immigration and travel from all countries has also declined this year, but the declines for Muslim majority countries were larger. They saw their share of all immigrant visa issuances fall 3 percent and their share of temporary visa approvals by 15 percent.

The visa declines disproportionately affected certain countries. In particular, they impacted the eight majority Muslim countries that President Trump has singled out in his three “travel ban” executive orders—Chad, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. (Iraq and Sudan are technically now off the list, though Iraqis are supposedly subject to higher scrutiny. Chad was added in September.)

All eight countries received fewer visa approvals, and collectively, their monthly average immigrant visa issuances fell a collective 36 percent, while temporary visas fell 42 percent. These declines occurred despite court orders that barred full implementation of the ban until this month.

Figure 3
Average Monthly Visa Issuances—Permanent and Temporary—2016 and 2017 for Eight “Travel Ban” Countries

Media Name: muslimrefugees3.png

Sources: U.S. Department of State (See Figure 2)

The decline in Muslim refugee admissions is almost entirely a consequence of policy. The administration selects the number and types of refugees that it wants. President Trump promised to “prioritize” Christian refugees, and he has done so, not by increasing their numbers—the number of Christian refugees has declined as well—but by decreasing Muslim admissions.

Policy is at least partially culpable for fewer visa approvals. Almost 80 percent of the drop in immigrant visas came from the eight targeted countries, but these countries explain only 14 percent of the drop in temporary visas.

The Trump administration has rolled out other policies designed to target Muslim extremists that include more complicated and lengthy immigration forms and requirements to supply more evidence to support certain claims, such as past addresses and jobs. These could be increasing the costs associated with an application, forcing immigrants to hire attorneys or simply delaying their applications. Accounts of mysterious visa denials for Muslim applicants have serviced as well.

Undoubtedly, some Muslim travelers are also afraid to travel to the United States right now—stories of lengthy detentions and other mistreatment at the border for Muslims could dissuade Muslims from even applying. Regardless, President Trump is certainly fulfilling a major campaign promise: few Muslims are entering the United States. One can only hope he will figure out “what is going on” soon.

December 12, 2017 5:58PM

Estate Tax Lobbying

Pundits of every political persuasion decry corporate lobbying in Washington, and a major tax bill is a great opportunity for businesses to gain benefits if they convince members of Congress to help them out. However, battles over tax provisions are sometimes not what they appear on the surface.

For years, liberal pundits have characterized efforts to repeal the estate, or death, tax as the plutocrats pulling the levers of power on the Republican side of the aisle. But a new investigative piece at Daily Caller by Richard Pollock exposes the lobbying that is undermining good policy on estate taxation.

I favor estate tax repeal, for numerous reasons, as I laid out here. One reason is the large waste of resources spent on paperwork and avoidance. I noted:

The estate tax is probably the most inefficient tax in America. It has a high marginal rate and is very difficult for the government to administer and enforce. It has also created a large and wasteful estate planning and avoidance industry. The industry overflows with high-paid lawyers and accountants doing paperwork, litigation, asset appraisals, and creating financial structures to minimize the tax burden using trusts, life insurance, and private foundations.

Pollock explored lobbying by the life insurance industry to retain the estate tax, and the large revenues the industry earns on estate planning and avoidance services:

The life insurance industry has handsomely profited from the estate tax for years through the sale of “survivorship,” or second-to-die life insurance policies that generate billions of dollars in sales. The insurance industry provides these products to cover the estimated estate tax the policyholders’ children or heirs would have to pay upon their death. The policies are a more affordable way to pay the tax to the federal government.

For example, if a husband or wife estimates their heirs could face $1 million in estate taxes, they could buy a life insurance policy that pays out $1 million upon their death. That sum is free of income tax. The costs for the $1 million whole or universal survivorship policy could cost them pennies on the dollar, making the protection affordable.

“If properly arranged, a survivorship life policy will be tax free to the beneficiary, no estate tax and no income tax,” one organization boasts on its website, adding, “If, for example, you only pay over time $200,000 of premiums into a $1,000,000 policy, you’ve effectively paid $1,000,000 of estate tax for $200,000! Twenty cents on the dollar!”

The life insurance industry has been tight-lipped about how much money they make from these policies. Survivorship policy “represents approximately four percent of the life insurance market and 10 percent of premium for companies who offer it annually,” according to a June 13, 2017 report by the Insurance News Network. That amount would deliver as much as $24 to $30 billion in annual profits to the industry based on premium data from the Insurance Information Institute.

… As talk of full repeal of the death tax echoed through the walls of Congress, “panic” gripped the life insurance industry, its estate planners and insurance agents, according to industry insiders. “All estate planning has almost come to a halt over the last six months due to the possibility of significant changes to the estate tax laws, and in particular, the possibility there could be repeal,” said retired estate planning lawyer Steve Hornig, in an interview with TheDCNF. Hornig opposes the estate tax.

“I would classify it as a panic in the industry,” added Ted Bernstein, who is a retirement-planning and life-insurance specialist in Florida and who supports the estate tax. “Survivorship insurance will go away completely if the legislation passes as expected.” “Permanent insurance policies,” he added, “are a very significant percentage of the life insurance sales of the leading life insurance companies in the U.S.”

… Between 2015 and 2016, lobbying expenditures by [the] American Council of Life Insurers were estimated at $9.4 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The insurance council has 30 full-time paid lobbyists …

In Congress, the House tax bill included estate tax repeal, while the Senate expanded the exemption. We will see in the coming week or two whether lawmakers will buck the life insurance lobbyists and repeal this inefficient tax.

December 12, 2017 4:01PM

Global Science Report: Another Indication of Lukewarming

In March 1990, NASA’s Roy Spencer and University of Alabama-Huntsville’s (UAH) John Christy dropped quite a bomb when they published the first record of lower atmospheric temperatures sensed by satellites' microwave sounding units (MSUs). While they only had ten years of data, it was crystal clear there was no significant warming trend.

It was subsequently discovered by Frank Wentz of Remote Sensing Systems (RSS), a Santa Rosa (CA) consultancy, that the orbits of the sensing satellites successively decay (i.e., become lower) and this results in a spurious but slight cooling trend. Using a record ending in 1995, Wentz showed a slight warming trend of 0.07⁰C/decade, about half of what was being observed by surface thermometers. 

In 1994, Christy and another UAH scientist, Richard McNider, attempted to remove “natural” climate change from the satellite data by backing out El Niño/La Niña fluctuations and the cooling associated with two big volcanoes in 1983 and 1991. They arrived at a warming trend of 0.09⁰C/decade after their removal.

Over the years, Spencer and Christy slightly revised their record repeatedly, and its latest iteration shows a total warming trend of 0.13⁰C/decade, which includes natural variability. But it is noteworthy that this is biased upward by very warm readings near the end of the record, thanks to the 2015–16 El Niño.

Recently, Christy and McNider carried out a similar analysis to what they did in 1994 and found removing the volcanoes and natural sea surface temperature changes resulted in a warming trend nominally the same as their 1994 finding, at 0.10⁰C/decade—far, far beneath the 0.2–0.3⁰C/decade predicted for the current era by the models in the latest (2013) report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Much as Christy and McNider said in 1994, it appears that the sensitivity of temperature to carbon dioxide changes in those models is just too high.

Here’s the illustration at the heart of the paper:

Because the print is so small in the figure legend, we’ll paraphrase it here. The top plot (red) is the temperature of the lower troposphere (“TLT”), from the surface to about eight kilometers in altitude.  The blue plot is the “natural” sea surface temperature (SST) component, now a combination of El Niño and other known oscillations, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). The middle black plot is the raw satellite data minus the oceanic oscillations, and the bottom one adjusts that for the two big volcanoes in 1983 and 1992.

Because the print is so small in the figure legend, we’ll paraphrase it here. The top plot (red) is the temperature of the lower troposphere (“TLT”), from the surface to about eight kilometers in altitude.  The blue plot is the “natural” sea surface temperature (SST) component, now a combination of El Niño and other known oscillations, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). The middle black plot is the raw satellite data minus the oceanic oscillations, and the bottom one adjusts that for the two big volcanoes in 1983 and 1992. 

The new Christy and McNider paper also calculates the “transient sensitivity” of temperature to increasing carbon dioxide. The transient sensitivity is the temperature change observed at the time that atmospheric carbon dioxide doubles from its preindustrial background. Given observed rates of increase, this should occur sometime around 2070. The sensitivity works out to 1.1⁰C, which is slightly below half of the average transient sensitivity of all the climate models in the latest (2013) report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This is another indication that if business-as-usual continues, including a continued transition from coal to natural gas for electrical generation, the world will easily meet the Paris Accord target of total anthropogenerated warming of less than 2.0⁰C by the year 2100.

Note that this is based on the satellite-sensed lower atmospheric temperatures. Our next post will compare them to the reanalysis data described in our last Global Science Report.