December 6, 2017 3:14PM

Federal Fumbles and Failures

The federal government has suffered from wasteful spending since the beginning. One of the biggest bureaucracies in the 19th century was the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). An official history says, "the Indian Bureau operated under constant and often well-founded criticism of corruption and inefficiency in its handling of the millions of dollars in supplies purchased each year for the reservations."

Senator James Lankford’s new study on wasteful spending (“Federal Fumbles”) indicates that BIA mismanagement persists, with waste and failure in its housing, education, and health care programs. I uncovered the same problems with the BIA.

“Fumbles” identifies wasteful programs across the government. The government spent $745 million on an Air Force control center that was scrapped, $85,000 for a music conductor’s birthday party, $148,950 for Alabama’s birthday party, $150,382 to document the Domaaki language in Pakistan, $1 billion for a low-value trolley in San Diego, $17 billion on erroneous EITC subsidies, and $1 billion on federal agency advertising.

Spending on such dubious activities represents a small share of the $4 trillion federal budget. But Lankford’s examples illustrate the broader overspending disease that afflicts Congress and the executive branch, which I discuss here, here, and here. Lankford’s projects are not just random failures, but rather stem from structural features of the government that induce overspending.

Senator Lankford will discuss his report at a Cato forum on Capitol Hill tomorrow at noon. Romina Boccia of Heritage, Steve Ellis of TCS, Ryan Bourne of Cato, and I will comment on the report, discuss the budget situation, and examine prospects for spending cuts. Federal spending is not a free lunch, but Cato forums are. All are welcome.

December 6, 2017 1:32PM

Who Stole What from Whom?

I visited the Patagonia web site looking for some Christmas presents yesterday and learned that "the president stole my land." How horrible! So I looked into it and discovered that President Trump took federal land that was managed by a particular set of federal agencies under a particular set of restrictions and changed it into federal land managed by the very same federal agencies under a slightly different set of restrictions. Not to jump on Patagonia, whose clothing I've always enjoyed, but where's the theft in that?

Of course, what Trump did was reverse changes by Presidents Clinton and Obama, who first imposed the slightly different set of restrictions in 1996 (Clinton for the Grand Staircase-Escalante) and 2016 (Obama for the Bears Ears). I can say with absolute certainty that, when they made those changes in 1996 and 2016, many people in Utah said, "the president stole our land."

Supposedly, one issue is vandalism and destruction to Native American antiquities and artifacts. But such vandalism and destruction was equally illegal (under laws that are equally difficult to enforce) under both sets of restrictions, so claims that Trump's decision opens the areas to more looting or devastation are red herrings.

Another issue is energy, but that isn't very important either. Supposedly, there is coal in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area, but at the moment the United States has a surplus of coal and declining demand. Meanwhile, the state of Utah admits that Bears Ears has "very little energy potential." So why all the fuss?

We call the federal lands public lands, but in fact it would be better to call them political lands because decisions about their use are made by the political system, not by the public. Yes, the agencies pretend that the public has a say, but the reality is that those who want to have a say have to build up political power to do it. This creates an interesting set of incentives.

First, to build political power, you have to convince people there is a crisis. Thus, a small rule change becomes "the president stole your land." Second, to keep that political power, you have to compete with other groups who are nominally your allies, and the best way to compete is to be more radical than they are. Anyone who compromises is a sell-out and risks losing support to other more radical groups.

As a result, the political system promotes polarization and a winner-take-all mentality. There's no need to decide whether any particular acre of land is most suitable for wilderness, grazing, timber, or mining. Instead, just demand that all land be dedicated to your favorite use.

President Trump's reclassification of some Utah lands may lead to only minor changes in on-the-ground management, but he made them to cater to an important political constituency. The shrill response from environmental groups (and some recreation businesses such as Patagonia) caters to another political constituency, some of whom may be secretly happy to see Trump take this action so they can use it as a fund-raising and membership-building tool.

This is very different from the market system, which promotes cooperation and compromise. When a Wisconsin dairy decides to turn their milk into cheese instead of yogurt, you don't see the National Yogurt Society sending out impassioned emails claiming "the dairy stole your yogurt." If the price of yogurt goes up, some dairy or another will redirect some milk to yogurt production. In effect, every member of the public has a say in how milk will be used every time they buy (or don't buy) a dairy product, which in a real sense makes markets more democratic than the political system.

Some will argue that markets can't work for natural landscapes because they are a finite resource. But federal lands make up just 27 percent of the nation, and so long as the federal government gives away recreation and other "natural" uses of the land, private landowners have no incentive to provide such uses. If managers were allowed to charge market rates for recreation, private landowners would have an incentive to provide similar natural experiences, thus greatly increasing the land available for such uses.

Although many of my Cato colleagues would say the best way to transfer federal lands from the political system to the market system is to privatize them, I've argued that we can achieve the same results with less controversy by turning them into fiduciary trusts that are funded out of their own revenues, receiving no tax dollars. If fully carried out, this could take care of problems related to wildfire, endangered species, and a wide variety of other issues.

A less radical solution is the creation of collaborative partnerships that include interest groups and the agencies themselves. These are fragile (one collapsed on the death of just one partner) and often depend on continuing federal subsidies for success, so I am not as enthused about them. But they could be a short-term solution for the southern Utah monument lands.

Those who truly care about the federal lands would seek a better system than the one we have now for managing those lands. Those who seek to perpetuate the political system of management are often more interested in promoting their organizations than in improving on-the-ground management.

December 6, 2017 10:42AM

Government Databases, Enough Already!

A headline today in the Washington Post is “Voter Database Alarms Experts.” The addition of another big government database alarms me as well. The other day I noted the huge vulnerability created by the income tax and resulting IRS data horde. And then there are federal data stockpiles for health care, security, and many other things.

Now a presidential commission apparently wants to create another juicy target for hackers.

From the Washington Post story:

More than a half-dozen technology experts and former national security officials filed an amicus brief Tuesday urging a federal court to halt the collection of voter information for a planned government database.

Former national intelligence director James R. Clapper Jr., one of the co-signatories of the brief, warned that a White House plan to create a centralized database containing sensitive information on millions of American voters will become an attractive target for nation states and criminal hackers.

… the brief focuses on the security implications of aggregating and housing sensitive information, such as names, addresses, party affiliation and partial social security numbers, in one central location, without adequate security and privacy safeguards. “A large database aggregating [personally identifiable information] of millions of American voters in one place, as the Commission has compiled and continues to compile, would constitute a treasure trove for malicious actors,” the signatories wrote.

The brief states that the commission does not appear to have established rules or procedures defining who gets access to the database or how it should be actively protected.

… Clapper and his co-signatories also said that the database will be situated on a re-purposed White House system, and not within the Department of Defense, making the information even more vulnerable to theft. “Aggregating a comprehensive and official set of such data onto one high-profile, widely publicized server maintained by the White House may reduce the technical and practical barriers to a foreign adversary acquiring such information and making use of it without detection,” the brief said.

December 6, 2017 9:27AM

More Information Won’t Resolve Management Problems at Border Patrol Checkpoints

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report claims that, among other issues, the Border Patrol is not efficiently deploying agents to maximize the interdiction of drugs and illegal immigrants at interior checkpoints. I wrote about this here. These checkpoints are typically 25 to 100 miles inside of the United States and are part of a “defense in depth” strategy that is intended to deter illegal behavior along the border. Border Patrol is making suboptimal choices with scarce resources when it comes to enforcing laws along the border. A theme throughout the GAO report is that Border Patrol does not have enough information to efficiently manage checkpoints. Contrary to the GAO’s findings, poor institutional incentives better explain Border Patrol inefficiencies, while a lack information is a result of those incentives. More information and metrics can actually worsen Border Patrol efficiency.

Inefficient Border Patrol Deployments

Border Patrol enforces laws in a large area along the border with Mexico. They divide the border into nine geographic sectors. They further divide each sector into stations that are further subdivided into zones, some of which are “border zones” that are actually along the Mexican border while the remainder are “interior zones” that are not along the border. The GAO reports that this organization allows officials on the zone level to deploy agents in response to changing border conditions and intelligence. 

The GAO states that Headquarters deploys Border Patrol agents to border sectors based on threats, intelligence, and the flow of illegal activity. The heads of each sector then allocate agents to specific stations and checkpoints based on the above factors as well as local ones such as geography, climate, and the proximity of private property. The heads of those stations and checkpoints then assign specific shifts to each agent. The time it takes for a Border Patrol agent to respond to reported activity, their proximity to urban areas where illegal immigrants can easily blend in, and road access all factor into these deployment decisions. 

All of the above factors that managers and supervisors consider for deployment are reasonable but it is still a management black box. How much does each of these factors matter in determining deployments? Does the relative importance of each factor shift over time or between sectors? How can we tell if one set of decisions is consistently better than another set? 

The GAO and other organizations always suggest the same solution to illuminate the black box of Border Patrol agent management decisions: more information. The Border Patrol has about 19,500 agents, about 43 percent of whom can be deployed in the field at any given time, and 143 checkpoint locations along the Southwest border. The GAO has access to extensive data on Border Patrol deployments from the Border Patrol Enforcement Tracking System (BPETS), GPS coordinates for some enforcement operations, seizure information, and the time use of Border Patrol agents by sector when they are on duty. Border Patrol likely has more information available that GAO has not analyzed.  

Yet, more information is always insufficient at gauging the efficiency of agent deployment at checkpoints. The recent GAO report notes that “checkpoints’ role in apprehensions and seizures is difficult to measure with precision because of long-standing data quality issues” that the GAO first complained about in 2009. Checkpoints did not consistently report apprehensions as some included any apprehension within a 2.5-mile radius of a checkpoint as apprehended by the checkpoint, while others had different definitional radii and reporting standards. As a result, the number of apprehensions and seizures cannot be determined. The data reporting “issues continue to affect how Border Patrol monitors and reports on checkpoint performance results” despite several memoranda that were supposed to remedy the data collection issues. Border Patrol finally created the Checkpoint Program Management Office (CPMO) in 2016 that is supposed to remedy data collection inconsistencies. 

The GAO report calls for more detailed information, such as distinguishing whether an illegal immigrant detention occurs “at” rather than “around” a Border Patrol checkpoint. The GAO also suggests accurate “workplace planning needs assessments” to make sure that checkpoints are manned and operated properly. GAO asks Border Patrol to implement internal controls to ensure data accuracy, consistency, and completeness to overcome problems like supervisors who are not required to update BPETS if their actual deployments differ from those planned and recorded in BPETS. Border Patrol should also study the impact of checkpoints on local communities when considering agent deployment. Finally, GAO reiterates its call for an accurate “workplace planning needs assessment” to make sure that checkpoints are manned and operated properly. How Border Patrol is supposed to integrate these new metrics with existing metrics is a mystery.

The Incentive to Patrol the Border

Government law enforcement agencies do have difficult or, in many cases, impossible jobs. Interrupting supply and demand by stopping the flow of unlawful drugs and illegal immigrants into the United States is as Sisyphean a task as Soviet criminal investigators who attempted to stop the black market in gasoline or food. More information won’t remedy the agent deployment problems at Border Patrol, CBP, or any other government agency. The problem with these agencies is not a lack of information but bad incentives. 

The performance of government agents isn’t measured by profit and loss as it is in the private sector but by political factors. In the language of economics, Border Patrol faces a principal-agent problem. Principals are the owners and the agents work for them. That sounds simple enough but principals and agents have different incentives. For instance, principals in private enterprise want to maximize profit while many of their agents (workers) want compensation for doing as little as possible or diverting resources into their own pockets. Principals thus have to structure compensation and manage in such a way as to align the incentives of workers and employees through profit sharing, other financial incentives, or through myriad other ways to mitigate these problems. Information is vital to mitigating a principal-agent problem (it can never be fully solved) but more information by itself without the incentive to use it wisely is wasted.

The Border Patrol principals are the politicians who ultimately determine its budget and appoint the heads of the organization. The incentive of the principals is to stay in elected office by winning elections. Border Patrol employees are the agents who supposedly work for the principals. Satisfying political constituencies has little to do with actually enforcing the law as written. For instance, enforcement of immigration laws typically declines during times of economic growth because businesses demand more workers and labor unions complain less about illegal immigrant workers. No lobbying of Congress is necessary, merely the reactions of Border Patrol employees to changing economic circumstances in anticipation of what they think politicians want. 

What those politicians want changes over time based on what they think the electorate wants. In the past, economic growth was a better predictor of immigration enforcement. Now, immigration-induced changes in local demographics, cultural complaints, and the idea that immigrants and their descendants will vote against incumbent political parties also drive support for immigration enforcement. Thus, removing illegal immigrants is the latest iteration of the Curley Effect. Countering this trend are pro-immigration local policies like Sanctuary Cities, as well as states like Illinois and California that restrict local police cooperation with federal law enforcement.

More Information Can Worsen Management

The call for more information and better metrics for measuring border security is well intentioned but it can also backfire. Some information is required to make accurate decisions but, beyond a certain point, too much information can produce information overload, whereby decisions become less accurate as the decision maker learns more (Figure 1). Information beyond the overload point will confuse a decision maker, affect his or her ability to set priorities, and worsen recall of prior information. A fundamental concept in economics is scarcity, which occurs when there is not enough supply of a good to satisfy all demand at a price of zero. Information overload is a reminder that human attention span, information processing capacity, and accurate decision-making ability are also scarce resources.

Figure 1

Information Overload as the Inverted U-Curve

Media Name: infooverload.jpg

Source: Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis.

Information overload can take several forms. Some scholars emphasize how much time it takes to absorb new information, which can diminish the accuracy of decisions that require timely action. That case is most similar to the timeliness of intelligence reports in guiding Border Patrol agent deployment. The value of most intelligence depreciates rapidly and, if it is accurate, must be quickly acted upon to have an effect. Other scholars focus on the quality of information, as it is difficult to measure that without first absorbing it and comparing it to other information. Estimates of the size of black markets, a crucial metric for Border Patrol, are fraught with errors and it is nearly impossible to tell which one is correct. Tasks that are reoccurring routines produce less information overload than more complex and varied tasks. As mentioned above, the organizational design of a firm is another important factor that influences information overload. 

Smugglers and illegal immigrants compound the problem of information overload as they change their behavior in response to Border Patrol policies. Smugglers and illegal immigrants rarely want to be apprehended so they shift away from patrols or areas where there is more enforcement. In the mid-2000s, illegal Mexican border crossers moved east from California and west from Texas into Arizona because of border security. More enforcement in Arizona after 2010 then shifted illegal immigrant entry attempts back east toward Texas. Their constant movement and reaction to Border Patrol and immigration enforcement generally creates more complexity and information that the agency must process. 

The symptoms of information overload are a lack of perspective, cognitive strain and stress, a greater tolerance for error, low morale, and the inability to use information to make a decision. Those symptoms are all common at Border Patrol and its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security. In terms of a lack of perspective, the chaos below the border is a supposed “existential threat.” Meanwhile, the tolerance for performance and discipline problems in Border Patrol personnel has festered for over a decade, producing numerous errors of all kindsMorale has historically been low in Border Patrol and has only risen recently due to the election of President Trump.     

One common reaction to information overload is that decision makers become highly selective, ignore vast amounts of information, and cherry pick that information which confirms their biases. Information never speaks for itself and it must always be interpreted and applied. By increasing the quantity of information available to managers and supervisors at Border Patrol, their actions could become more erratic and less efficient because they will be able to pull from a vaster array of justifications for their decisions. Like any other self-interested actors, Border Patrol will always select and interpret information to justify the actions they want to undertake while discounting information that supports another course of action. The principal-agent problem means that this rarely gets corrected. 

For instance, 9.4 percent of Border Patrol hours were spent manning checkpoints from 2013–2016. Yet those checkpoints were only responsible for, at most, 3.1 percent of all illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol in those years and 5.4 percent of all marijuana seizures by weight (Figure 2). That might look like an inefficient allocation of Border Patrol agents, but a smart manager can always argue the opposite by saying, as an example, “we don’t catch many illegal immigrants at checkpoints because checkpoints are so effective at deterring illegal immigrants from even trying to use to the road. Imagine how many there’d be without the checkpoints!” That manager would have a good point. 

Figure 2

Percent of Illegal Immigrant Apprehensions & Drug Seizures Made by Border Patrol by Location, 2013–2016


Media Name: checkpointblogalex.jpg

Source: Government Accountability Office, p. 41.

A border wall that diverts illegal immigrants into the interior and away from cities can be used as support for a longer wall to “extend the gains” or as support for no wall at all because “illegal immigrants are just diverted to more remote areas where agents now have to patrol with greater hazards.” More information and data could worsen the decisions made by Border Patrol managers. 

Back to Incentives

Firms employ countermeasures to information overload, such as better technology and algorithms to select the best data, but the countermeasures are only effective if the managers want to make more accurate decisions. The desire to make accurate decisions in a large organization comes back to incentives, which government agencies have a very difficult time aligning with the stated intent of the law.     

If the incentives to act efficiently are in place then the actor has the incentive to discover the information necessary to carry out his task. But perfect information cannot fix poor incentives and, in fact, can make them worse. Rather than focusing on hiring statisticians, econometricians, and other technocrats to create ever-new metrics to judge government efficiency, Congress should think carefully about aligning incentives to get the outcomes they want. That is a near-impossible job for politicians to tackle so, in most cases, they should just pull back the reach of federal law enforcement to focus on a handful of tasks. 


The best information in the world cannot compensate for poor incentives and can make government management less efficient by providing cover for any choice. Government agents are not usually malevolent, or at least any more so than the rest of us, but they have incentives to satisfy political demands. Private firms that behave in these ways often fail or earn lower profits unless they are bailed out by the government, which is usually the source of these poor incentives in the first place. More metrics can even worsen efficiency. We should look to deeper structural reforms of government agencies rather than continuing to appeal to a priesthood of statisticians and econometricians to produce information to guide us.

December 5, 2017 3:55PM

Justice Kennedy Will Be Top Chef in Masterpiece Cakeshop Case

After this morning's Supreme Court argument in the Colorado wedding-cake case, the only thing that safe to predict about this case is that it’ll end up 5-4. It’s perhaps unavoidable that a case so politically fraught would break down on conventional ideological lines, with the four “conservatives” (presumably including the silent Justice Clarence Thomas) siding with the baker who didn’t want to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, the four “liberals” siding with the couple that wants to use the state’s anti-discrimination law to compel him to do so, and Justice Anthony Kennedy somewhere in the middle. But it’s disappointing -- and it’s especially disconcerting that Justice Sonia Sotomayor kept comparing this case to Piggie Park, Katzenbach v. McClung, and other cases from the Jim Crow Era when African Americans were denied service at restaurants altogether.

It's telling that none of the wedding-vendor cases we've seen in the courts (or in the news) the last few years have involved any business that refuses to serve gay people altogether. Jack Phillips certainly has -- and offered to sell Charlie Craig and David Mullins anything on display in his store -- as has Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington florist whose fate likely depends on the outcome of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. We simply don't have situations like we did in the 1960s when businesses claimed both a religious and expressive right not to accept racial minorities as customers.

If some business, wedding-related or otherwise, didn't want to serve gay people, that would be an easy case under Supreme Court precedent (leaving the question of the common-law freedom of association to one side). Instead, it’s quite clear to me that not wanting to convey a message of affirmation for a particular event is different from refusing to serve people based on their identity -- and also that Jack Phillips’s gorgeous sculptures are just as protected by the First Amendment when made with fondant as they would if made with plaster.

Indeed, unless a "BBQ artist" is asked to concoct some sort of meat-statue with his tender-smoked goodness, there's no parallel here. That's why we wrote in our brief that "wedding (and other) vendors who produce and sell expressive works must be free to accept or reject particular jobs, [but] this right does not apply to those who do not engage in protected speech." "Creating expressive [products] is constitutionally different than nonexpressive activity like delivering food, renting out ballrooms, or driving limousines."

But that position may not get five votes; Justice Kennedy seemed to focus on the religious animus at play, as well as the uneven way in which the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has applied its law. Indeed, in a line of questioning that has provoked the most pessimism from the pro-force forces, he highlighted that “tolerance is essential in a free society.” In an echo of his opinion in Obergefell, the case that two years ago established same-sex couples' right to marry, Kennedy said, "It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful."

Still, it’s hard to see the grand champion of free speech forcing a baker (or anyone) to express a message he disagrees with, regardless of the implications for religious freedom. As he wrote in Obergefell, "The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons." It just shouldn't matter whether an artistic professional declines a expressive commission for reasons that are religious, secular, or "good" or "bad" -- or none at all.

There are many ways the Supreme Court could slice this case, with many dividing lines that are anything but half-baked. But, to carry over a theme from yesterday’s case, I wouldn’t bet on any particular outcome.

You can read the argument transcript here and, for an audio-visual version of the same sort of debate, see video of my debate at Cato yesterday.

December 5, 2017 3:28PM

How Black Markets Saved Spanish Cheesemaking (Plus, a Cookie Sequel)

Spain is now known to food lovers as one of the great cheese producers of the world, but it wasn't always so. At one of my favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, Jackie Bryant tells the story of how "one of Europe’s oldest and most varied artisanal cheesemaking cultures... was once entirely illegal. And its survival can be largely attributed to a black market of underground cheese."

The villain in the piece is dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975, his policies on this subject lingering on for some years thereafter. With a taste for centralized command, Franco wanted to impose mass production and its efficiencies of scale on the dairy sector: 

As part of this policy, quotas were enacted that outlawed milk production under 10,000 liters a day. This made small dairies and cheesemaking productions... illegal. To comply with the law, they had to sell their milk to larger companies.

Enric Canut, a Barcelona-born cheesemaker, agricultural engineer, and dairy consultant, recalls a catalogue of Spanish cheeses compiled by the government in 1964. “Five years later,” he says, “most of those same cheeses were illegal!”

So traditional cheesemaking went underground. Especially in independent-minded rural areas like Galicia, most farmers quietly defied the government. They would report milk as having been personally consumed by the farm family itself, even if that meant by the hundreds of gallons a week. And they would meet in covert open-air markets -- at times like 5 in the morning -- to sell their wares beyond the view of inspectors. 

Canut later reported to the government that at least 25% of daily milk production in Spain went towards making illegal cheese. It was a remarkable refutation of the government’s policy. Franco had imagined large, industrial operations. Instead Spaniards enthusiastically supported small, black market cheesemakers who, as Canut remembers from visits throughout Spain in the 1970s, sometimes kept their cheese in actual caves....

Franco’s policies were slowly phased out, and, in 1985, dairies of all sizes became legal. Canut estimates that in a decade, Spain went from having almost no small dairies to having nearly 1,000—a combination of upstarts and illicit dairies that had been producing all along.

Fom there, another 20 years brings us to the current runaway success story of specialty Spanish cheeses, which figure on the menu at many Michelin-starred restaurants. Read the whole piece here.

P.S. Two weeks ago in this space I quoted an Atlas Obscura report on how here in the U.S. the FDA's trans fat ban was making life hard for the little business that bakes Baltimore's fudge-draped Berger cookie. Shortly after that the Baltimore Sun in its own follow-up report revealed a couple of further twists: while the company's frosting supplier had managed to solve its trans fat problem, it did so in a way that exposed the cookie maker to a new regulatory trip-up. I explain in this Overlawyered post.   

December 5, 2017 3:25PM

The Malady of Excessive Interventionism

There is a lot that’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy right now, but a broader look at U.S. grand strategy in the post-Cold War era reveals just how broken things have been across administrations of both parties.

The post-Cold War era has seen a continuation of a long global trend toward greater peace and stability, lower rates of conflict, and zero great power wars. More peace and diminishing threats have merely enhanced the remarkable security already enjoyed by the United States thanks to its geographic isolation, weak neighbors, unparalleled economic and military power, and its nuclear deterrent.

But America doesn’t act as if it is safe. Instead, we have a hyper-interventionist foreign policy. Over the last century, according to the Rand Corporation, “there was only one brief period – the four years immediately after U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam – during which the United States did not engage in any interventions abroad.” Indeed, “the number and scale of U.S. military interventions rose rapidly in the aftermath of the Cold War, just as [rates of global] conflict began to subside.”

According to data from the Congressional Research Service, the United States has engaged in more military interventions in the past 28 years than it had in the previous 190 years of its existence.* About 46 percent of Americans have lived the majority of their lives with the United States at war. Twenty-one percent have lived their entire lives in a state of war.

This suggests a truly perverse defect in the way we are carrying out foreign policy. In an era of unprecedented peace and stability, which should permit a less activist foreign policy, we are finding reasons to intervene militarily at an extraordinary pace, making the past three decades a significant outlier in U.S. history.

America’s role in the world underwent a massive expansion following WWII and again at the end of the Cold War. Washington adopted policies and built bureaucracies that incentivized interventionism. As Joseph Schumpeter once put it in an essay on imperialism, “Created by the wars that required it, the machine now created the wars it required.”

In some ways, Americans have been insulated from the worst effects of this aberrant post-Cold War foreign policy (the costs have been borne more acutely by certain foreign populations on the receiving end of it). However, there have been costs here at home. The United States has spent almost $15 trillion on its military since 1990, an enormous price tag that far exceeds what any other country has spent. This constant state of war also tends to undermine liberal values at home by eroding constitutional checks and balances on war powers, incentivizing excessive government secrecy, and infringing on civil liberties in the name of security. In the oft-cited words of James Madison, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

As predicted, Donald Trump has maintained and in some ways expanded America’s militaristic and interventionist role in the world. And Trump’s rise is arguably another indication of how democratic norms can erode in the midst of continual warfare. As with most things, however, America’s unusual post-Cold War foreign policy and Trump’s convention-violating brashness has in many ways become normalized.

If we are ever to break out of this apathy and return once again to a realistic and prudent foreign policy commensurate with the low-threat environment we currently inhabit, we will have to reckon with the steep costs of this expansive grand strategy and wrangle the self-sustaining national security bureaucracy into the austerity it desperately needs.

*The data from the CRS report is helpful, but imperfect and incomplete. It lists 416 “notable deployments of U.S. military forces overseas” from 1798-2017. It lists 212 interventions between 1798 and January 1989 and 204 since then. However, many of the individual items listed in the 19th century involve minor actions like deploying a small naval force to gain the release of a captured U.S. citizen abroad or shows of force against pirates or mischievous whalers – deployments that are too minor to merit an individual itemized listing in later periods. Furthermore, “covert operations, disaster relief, and routine alliance stationing and training exercises are not included,” activities that are far more frequent now than they were in the past. One should consider the multiple covert undeclared drone wars the United States has waged in the post-9/11 era and, of course, programs of coordination with foreign militaries in conflict areas where U.S. forces get killed or wounded, as in Niger recently, but which do not make it on to the list. Finally, CRS bundled many individual post-9/11 deployments and interventions together as a single item on the list, even though they are clearly distinct and included multiple countries in separate regions of the world. This is likely because the executive branch bundled them together when informing Congress of the deployments, which is the primary source for CRS’s data. Completely and accurately accounting for these discrepancies would require a full-length study, but my own ad hoc, and I think conservative, adjustments led me to a breakdown of 199 interventions from 1798 to January 1989 and 213 from 1989 to today.