Archives: 01/2018

America’s Foreign Policy Attention Deficit

We Washingtonians rightly get criticized for being hyper focused on politics. While D.C. natives gossip about the ups and downs of the powerful elite, most Americans are worrying about their marriages and mortgages. The disjuncture is even greater when it comes to foreign policy, an area in which public interest and knowledge are particularly limited. As many scholars have pointed out, to some degree this dynamic is the result of “rational ignorance” on the part of the public. Given the many other priorities citizens have in their private lives, the benefits of following policy debates closely is quite limited so long as people are generally confident that more knowledgeable people are paying attention. 

Taken too far, however, public apathy toward foreign affairs could become a problem for a democratic system. A central pillar of democratic politics is the ability of the marketplace of ideas to foster debate and produce sound policy. Without a certain level of public engagement, the marketplace of ideas cannot function effectively. If no one is paying attention, how can we have a meaningful debate over U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Africa, or what to do about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, or China’s growing power? 

The traditional method for criticizing the public’s attentiveness to foreign policy is to note Americans’ astonishing lack of knowledge about the world. The June 2017 Pew Research “News IQ” survey finds, as usual, that most Americans know little even about events and people that have appeared regularly in the news. On the four questions most closely related to foreign policy, 60% of those surveyed knew that Britain is leaving the European Union, 47% could identify Robert Mueller as the person leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, 44% could name Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, and just 37% could identify Emmanuel Macron as the president of France.

The public also typically lacks key facts informing specific foreign policy issues. Even as the Trump administration calls for new kinds of nuclear warheads, polls have routinely found that few Americans are aware that the United States already possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. And though 67% of Americans in 2014 knew that the Islamic State controlled territory in Syria, only half could identify the nation of Syria when it was highlighted on a map. In 2009, fewer than 30% knew that the United States had 70,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Thanks to Google we have another way to measure America’s foreign policy attention deficit. Google Trends gives us the ability to track how often people searched for a given term over a particular time period. If public ignorance is due to lack of interest, search activity on the Internet is a good way to measure that.

Senator Lee’s Bill Would Eliminate Controversial HUD Rule

Last week I published an article critiquing Secretary Ben Carson’s disappointing first year at the Housing and Urban Development Department. It outlined some of the areas where Carson’s efforts have fallen short.

Last year, Senator Mike Lee introduced a bill addressing one of the issues Carson fell short on – facing an Obama-era rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH).[1] Congressman Paul Gosar later introduced companion legislation in the House. Both bills would eliminate the HUD rule if passed.

That’s good news for legislative process, since the Obama-era rule that makes HUD an overseer of local demographic information seems to be only loosely based on the 50-year-old Fair Housing Act it claims to interpret. The rule is probably an example of the agency getting creative about ways to expand its mission. 

In other words, if legislators like the rule they should pass new legislation rather than abdicate legislative authority to HUD. Conversely, if legislators don’t like the rule Congress should pass legislation to nullify it.

The latter is precisely what Senator Lee and Congressman Gosar’s bill does – eliminate the controversial rule outright. And despite the bill’s rather unfortunate name, the “Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act,”[2] it is encouraging that Congress is taking deliberate legislative action.

After all, legislators are supposed to create laws, not agency professionals and not even political appointees. Regardless of how one feels about the HUD rule’s particulars, more legislating in Congress and less in the executive branch is a model everyone should be able to get behind.

Much Ado About Yik Yak

Campus controversy is all the rage these days. Today’s installment comes from the University of Mary Washington, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Members of the local student affiliate of the Feminist Majority Foundation took public positions against fraternities and various other problems exemplifying what was, in their view, a toxic student culture regarding sexual assault (for example, the men’s rugby team singing a necrophilic drinking song).

Students who disagreed with the feminist activists went on Yik Yak, a now-defunct app that allowed anonymous users to post whatever they like. It turns out that the veil of anonymity encourages people to speak in an unvarnished way, so many of the comments on the app were aggressive, vulgar, and hyperbolic.

The activists demanded that the university administration take action – and some actions were taken (including suspension of the rugby team) – but the university could not very well punish anonymous postings because, well, they were anonymous. The administration pointed out that banning a public forum because of objections to the speech expressed there would be an affront to free speech, which the University of Mary Washington, a public institution, is obliged by the First Amendment to protect.

The activists were displeased and, backed by the national Feminist Majority Foundation, sued the school for failing to ban Yik Yak and otherwise crack down on offensive speech, in alleged violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The federal district court granted the university’s motion to dismiss, so the case is now on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Solid Foundation? The (Flawed) Assumptions Underpinning Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

A call for new low-yield nuclear weapons in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has generated a good deal of controversy and debate among American experts, and for good reason. However, there has been little attention paid to the assumptions that undergird the arguments made in the NPR to justify such capabilities. Flawed assumptions lead to flawed policy prescriptions, and the NPR’s assumptions are shaky at best. Congress should not move forward on the administration’s wish list of low-yield nuclear weapons without rigorously questioning the faulty assumptions made in the 2018 NPR.  

Fear and Mass Surveillance: Our Constitutionally Toxic Political Cocktail

At 12:51pm on January 18, 2018–just a day before it was set to expire–the Senate followed the House’s lead and reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FAA) Section 702 mass surveillance program for another six years by a vote of 65-34.

Writing for JustSecurity.org in October 2017, I made this prediction about the then-looming debate over extending the mass surveillance authority embodied in Section 702: 

Absent another Snowden-like revelation, Section 702 of the FAA will be reauthorized largely without change, and any changes will be cosmetic, and almost certainly abused. Whether it has a “sunset” provision or not is now politically and practically meaningless.

As it turns out, that prediction was optimistic. But first, a recap of the events of this week.

Haitian Guest Workers Overstayed Their Visas Because the Government Cancelled the Program for Them

The Trump Administration recently ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop issuing H-2A visas for temporary agricultural work to Haitians.  One of the reasons given for not allowing Haitians to use the visas was their high overstay rate of about 40 percent in 2016, meaning that about 40 percent of Haitian workers on the H-2A did not leave at the end of the season as they were supposed to.  Depending exactly how overstay rates are calculated, they normally range from about 1 to 3.5 percent for workers on H-2A visas. 

One reason the H-2A overstay rate is so low is that workers have an excellent chance of coming back year after year if they abide by the rules of the program but, if they overstay or otherwise break the rules, then their chance of earning the visa in the future drops to near zero.  However, if the chance of coming back in future years is low because the government could cancel the program then many rational Haitian workers would choose to overstay.  That is likely what happened in the example of the Haitian H-2A visa workers.

Economists Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel wrote a preliminary impact evaluation in February 2017 of allowing Haitians to use the H-2A visa.  The government granted only a handful of Haitians visas to work in the United States in 2015 and 2016.  Clemens and Postel report that all of the workers in 2015 returned to Haiti as scheduled.  They wrote:      

As they vetted potential participants, association leaders were aware that continued participation in the program would be jeopardized if a substantial number of workers overstayed their visas. In the event, all of the workers who traveled returned as scheduled.       

Clemens and Postel didn’t mention the overstay rate for the Haitians who entered in 2016 as that data wasn’t available yet (they were writing the paper in 2016).  But if the reports are true that the Haitian H-2A overstay rate jumped to 40 percent in 2016, then it is likely that the workers suspected that the program was going to be canceled under the next administration and that this was their only chance to stay in the United States.  The expected loss in lifetime income from the possibility that Trump would win and shut down the program was so great that 40 percent of them decided to take their chances in the black market and scuttle any future chance that they would receive another legal guest worker visa.

This is a wonderful example of how government actions have unintended consequences.  Haitians are rational economic actors.  If the goal is to keep overstay rates low, then the government needs to make it easy for migrants to earn visas today and to credibly commit to issuing them in the future.      

Securing America’s Future Act Is a Net Negative for the Immigration System

President Trump is backing the Securing America’s Future (SAF) Act drafted by key House Republicans. The SAF Act is a comprehensive immigration reform bill posing as a DACA fix. It is 414 pages long and touches on every major area of the immigration system—family, employment, and diversity legal immigration, humanitarian programs, workplace enforcement, temporary visas, interior enforcement, border security, criminal penalties, and much else. Comprehensive immigration reform is fine, but this massive, complex bill expands the scope of the debate so far from DACA that it cannot seriously be considered an answer to this relatively small immigration issue.

In any case, SAF’s negative provisions outweigh its positive ones. The good leaves much to be desired, and the bad is about as bad as it gets.