March 2018

March 23, 2018 12:44PM

Food Labeling: Say No To International Nannyism

U.S. negotiators are rumored to be taking the position that if the NAFTA treaty is to prescribe uniform food labeling among member countries, that labeling should be done along the lines of the current U.S. federal scheme, meant primarily to inform consumers rather than scare them away from bad‐​for‐​them‐​in‐​excess choices like ice cream and corn chips. A front‐​page article in Wednesday’s New York Times is upset about that stance. Instead, the Times takes the principled position that labeling rules are best decided by each country under national law, and that transnational institutions, such as treaty organizations, should mostly keep their noses out of it absent some angle closely related to trade. 

Just kidding! That would be too sensible an objection. Instead, the Times takes the view that transnational meddling in food labeling is a fabulous idea when done by people it likes in the name of public health, but becomes bad when others get into the act, such as large American food makers or advocates of free‐​market policy. 

“Many public health officials,” the Times explains, now favor “the use of vivid warnings on foods with high levels of sugar, salt and fat.” It goes on to say that “public health experts” — even as its appeal to authority gets more explicit, its phrasing gets less specific — have hailed a new law in Chile that includes a “ban on the use of cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger” as well as a requirement for eye‐​catching warning symbols. 

The side favoring tougher regulation has been well organized for years at playing the international circuit, a fact the Times gives away by quoting in its NAFTA story advocates from an international public health charity in Australia and an anti‐​corporate campaign in Brussels. The U.N.‘s World Health Organization (WHO), much swayed by transnational NGOs as well as by the views of the Guardian‐​reading and Times‐​subscribing class generally, has long demanded that member countries adopt more restrictive regulations on the marketing of food, drink and other products. In one memorable venture into the headlines recently, WHO called for the exclusion of children from movies in which smoking takes place, which might limit screenings of Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians (Cruella DeVil!), Lord of the Rings, Little Mermaid, and Alice in Wonderland with its hookah‐​smoking caterpillar. 

Like international organizations, treaty administration bodies tend to draw for guidance on an elite stratum of professional diplomats, conference‐​goers, NGO and nonprofit specialists, and so forth, most of whom are relatively insulated from any pushback in public opinion. That might be a good reason to minimize the role of transnational panels in governance where not absolutely necessary. It is not a good reason to adopt the Times’s implicit position on lobbying for international standards, which is that it’s fine when done by our side but illegitimate when done by yours. 

March 23, 2018 11:01AM

Transparency Casts Doubt on American Role in Yemen

On Tuesday, a vote in the Senate sought to curtail America’s participation in the destruction of Yemen. This vote was the culmination of months of dedicated work by those involved in this issue, and the resolution failed by only a few votes. It forced a debate on the topic and added to international momentum to resolve the conflict peacefully. 

On Thursday, the Trump administration notified Congress of three new arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—the country that has repeatedly tossed aside the laws of armed conflict to indiscriminately target cities and civilian populations. Nevertheless it seems that America will remain the kingdom’s largest weapons supplier

This round includes 6,600 TOW missiles, $300 million worth of repairs to their Abrams tanks and other surface vehicles, and $106 million for helicopter maintenance. These deals are worth $630 million total. 

Restricting arms sales like these would lessen America’s involvement in the war and force Saudi Arabia to either find other suppliers or rethink the current course of action.

For more on this issue, check out our latest in DefenseOne on the events this week. Interested in American weapons exports and the intersection of foreign policy more generally? Read our latest Policy Analysis, “Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy.” 

March 23, 2018 10:39AM

Omnibus Outrage

Congress has passed a giant omnibus spending bill with large increases for every federal budget area, as shown in the table below from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Defense spending is spiked 14 percent, and there are even larger increases in energy/​water, state/​foreign affairs, and transportation/​housing.

The usual story of federal budgeting is that “the president proposes, and Congress disposes.” The president issues his annual budget, and then lawmakers put most of the proposals in the trash unless the president really fights for them.

But under Trump, the pattern is shaping up differently; it is “the president proposes, and the president disposes.” Trump has proposed two relatively frugal budgets on the nondefense side. He included substantial cuts to many departments. But if he signs the omnibus, he will be spinning 180 degrees and throwing his own spending reforms in the trash. He would be signaling to conservative voters: “My reform proposals are bogus. I have no intention of cutting any of those big‐​government programs you hate such as the public housing, welfare, business subsidies, and the environmental bureaucracy.”

If Trump signs the omnibus, it will put cabinet secretaries in a weird position. Trump’s budget proposes major cuts to departments such as Education and HUD, and secretaries have been going up to Capitol Hill to defend the reforms in front of the appropriations committees. If Trump goes along with the GOP leadership and hikes spending, it would cut his cabinet secretaries off at the knees. Yesterday, the administration was saying Trump will sign it, but this morning Trump is saying he might not because of concerns over the immigration provisions.

The Washington Post describes, for example, how GOP leaders—and Trump if he signs it—are throwing conservative Education Secretary Betsy DeVos under the bus. On Tuesday, DeVos was in front of House appropriators defending the administration’s proposed $3.6 billion cut to the Education Department, saying, “President Trump is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education, and that is reflected in this budget.” But the omnibus goes in the reverse direction and hikes the department’s spending $3.9 billion. In thinking about a possible veto, Trump should be considering a lot more than just the immigration provisions. 

Media Name: crfb_fy19.png
March 23, 2018 10:35AM

Sorting Out All These Tariffs: Are We Having a Trade War Yet?

Tariffs are making headlines just about every day now, but it’s often not clear which stories are about threats of tariffs, and which are about actual tariffs that will be applied. Back on March 8, President Trump announced that he would impose tariffs on imports of steel (25%) and aluminum (10%), but also noted that Canada and Mexico would be exempt and there was going to be a 15 day period to talk about exemptions for other countries (as well as specific product exclusions). Other countries complained that the purported justification for the tariffs, national security, had no basis, and the EU threatened retaliatory tariffs.

That 15 days was up today, but before we get to that, yesterday President Trump was threatening more tariffs, this time only against China, for various practices — e.g., alleged forced technology transfers and a failure to safeguard intellectual property rights — that it has engaged in over the years. The Wall Street Journal described yesterday’s action this way:

The White House is putting together a package of 25% tariffs on Chinese imports, and Mr. Trump’s advisers said they had targeted 1,300 product categories. The president said that action could affect imports of “about $60 billion,” but his advisers, speaking earlier, said that it was more likely to be $50 billion, or roughly 10% of the more than $500 billion the U.S. imported from China last year.

The administration says it will publish a formal list of proposed tariffs in 15 days. U.S. industry would get 30 days to comment on which products should be selected for tariffs, said the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. …

So these China‐​specific tariffs are in the works, but they are not being imposed just yet. There is still time to convince the Trump administration to focus more on bringing complaints against China to the World Trade Organization (WTO), as we advocate here and here.

In the meantime, though, the Trump administration imposed the steel and aluminum tariffs as of today. However, in the end, they exempted (at least until April 30) many additional countries: Brazil, the EU member states, South Korea, Australia, and Argentina. That softens the impact of the tariffs considerably, and the EU may not retaliate just yet (although it is not happy with an exemption that is only temporary). But other countries, including China, are subject to these tariffs. These countries are likely to file complaints at the WTO, but in addition, China has announced (in Chinese) that it will retaliate with tariffs of its own. No word yet on retaliatory actions from others.

What’s interesting about China’s retaliation is that it has picked up on an EU legal theory, under which the retaliatory tariffs are actually permissible under WTO rules, as they are an action related to a “safeguard” measure (because the national security justification is a sham, the argument goes, the U.S. tariffs are actually safeguard measures). I’m skeptical of this theory (see the comment discussion here), but at this point all sides are pushing the boundaries of what is legal.

So where does all this leave us? Are we having a “trade war” yet? That’s a term that gets thrown around a bit loosely, but we now have some (arguably) extra‐​legal tariffs imposed, and some (arguably) extra‐​legal tariffs being threatened in response. Whether it’s a “trade war” or a “trade skirmish,” it’s a dangerous road we are going down, and there is the prospect of escalation if the additional tariffs on China announced yesterday are imposed. 

There is still time to rein all this in, though. The Trump administration has decided to bring a WTO case against China related to one set of Chinese practices; working with other countries on multilateral efforts to address China’s practices more broadly is a much better approach than unilateralism. If the Trump administration can be convinced to focus on working through the WTO, rather than imposing tariffs unilaterally, much of the damage can be avoided.

March 23, 2018 8:57AM

Bolton In, McMaster Out

Americans who voted for Donald Trump believing he would be disinclined to start new wars should be puzzled by his decision to tap John Bolton as his third national security adviser. The rest of us should be concerned.

Bolton has been one of the most reliably hawkish voices in American politics in recent memory. In 2015, he openly called for launching a war against Iran. Earlier this year, he argued that the United States should initiate a war against North Korea. His faith in the utility of force, and his general disdain for diplomacy, is legendary — and apparently hasn’t been shaken by the wars of the recent past.

Most Americans — 67 percent in a recent poll — believe that the Iraq war failed to advance — or, worse, undermined — American security. Bolton appears to agree with the mere 22 percent of Americans who think that that war made things better. 

Back in 2013, Donald Trump tweeted: 

All former Bush administration officials should have zero standing on Syria. Iraq was a waste of blood & treasure.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013

(H/T Vox’s Dara Lind)

One has to wonder: what changed his mind?

In fairness, H.R. McMaster was no dove. He appears to have been a decisive voice in convincing President Trump to reverse himself on Afghanistan. But McMaster’s cerebral nature simply doesn’t compare to Bolton’s made‐​for‐​Fox News bellicosity — which may explain why Trump tired of the three‐​star general. 

The circle of men and women who advise a president on foreign policy is never large. With Mike Pompeo replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (pending Senate confirmation, which isn’t assured), Secretary of Defense James Mattis may be the only person with the stature to counteract the vocal and growing chorus who can be expected to feed President Trump’s worst instincts.


March 22, 2018 5:03PM

Big Spenders Dominate

Congressional leaders have agreed to a 2,232-page omnibus spending package that allocates federal discretionary spending for 2018. Defense and nondefense spending levels are jacked up, budget caps are blown through, and the deficit is soaring.

You could say that the (nominally spendthrift) Democrats took the (nominally frugal) Republicans to the cleaners. But the real problem is that the great majority of members in both parties love federal spending. They think it unambiguously helps people; they are oblivious to constitutional federalism; they are willing to load more debt onto young people; and they have no idea about the negative consequences of government spending, such as the crowding out of private‐​sector activities.

It is amazing how many liberal priorities are included in the omnibus, despite the Republicans having the White House and majorities in both chambers. The Democrats highlighted some of their big‐​spending wins here:

  • Nondefense discretionary spending up $63 billion in 2018.
  • More for Head Start.
  • More for the child care and development block grant.
  • More for K-12 subsidies.
  • More for college subsidies.
  • More for renewable energy subsidies.
  • More for Amtrak subsidies.
  • More for urban rail subsidies.
  • More for community development subsidies.
  • More for the EPA.
  • More for public housing subsidies.

Aside from these increases in traditionally liberal programs, there were spending increases on many other programs that are also not properly federal activities, such as state‐​local policing and state infrastructure. If we are ever going to tackle massive federal deficits, we have to start cutting federal subsidies for state‐​local activities. But those subsidies keep rising.

More evidence on the bipartisan spending disease came Tuesday as HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended the administration’s budget to the appropriations committee. Carson did a fine job. He had many facts at his disposal, he generally defended the administration’s proposed cuts, and he deflected seemingly unfair accusations about his office expenses.

What struck me was that in the hearing’s Q&A, not a single Republican member spoke out in favor of the administration’s proposed HUD budget cuts. This is a department chock full of 1960s‐​style liberal interventionist programs, such as public housing and community development. If Republican members were conservatives, they would have lauded the proposed HUD cuts, but they did not.

It is sad reality that we get much more resistance to spending on Capitol Hill when Republicans are in the minority.

March 22, 2018 4:27PM

CDC Researchers State Overdose Death Rates From Prescription Opioids Are Inaccurately High

In an article in the April 2018 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, four researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention report that the CDC’s methods for tracking opioid overdose deaths have over-estimated the number of those deaths due to prescription opioids, as opposed to heroin, illicitly manufactured fentanyl, and other illicit variants of fentanyl. They called the prescription opioid overdose rate “significantly inflated.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid categorized as a prescription opioid. But, in the outpatient setting, it is predominantly prescribed as a time-release transdermal patch, not suitable for nonmedical users. Occasionally, it is prescribed as a lozenge, a nasal spray, or a small film that can be placed within the corner of one’s mouth, usually to cancer patients in extreme pain. These forms of the drug don’t lend themselves to being converted into a form suitable for nonmedical users wishing to snort or inject the drug. The injectable form of fentanyl is almost exclusively used in the hospital setting, both as an anesthetic agent and to control severe pain in patients who are critically ill or in the postoperative recovery room. Over the past several years, the underground market has been flooded by illicitly manufactured fentanyl and its variants, often moved into the country in a powdered form through the mail.

Read the rest of this post »