April 11, 2018 3:30PM

A Goldilocks Strike against Assad has Few Benefits, Many Risks

A chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by Syrian government forces against the rebel-controlled city of Douma has prompted the Trump administration to consider military strikes against the Assad regime. The United States will likely follow through with military retaliation given last year’s U.S. missile strike against a Syrian air base following a similarly large chemical weapons attack. Since the last U.S. attack clearly failed to deter Syria from using chemical weapons, the Trump administration faces pressure to inflict greater pain on the Assad regime this time around. However, a stronger U.S. military response—or any military action for that matter—carries more risks than rewards.

The argument supporting U.S. military action is more or less the same as the argument made in 2017: the United States must punish the Assad regime in order to deter any future use of chemical weapons by the regime. However, Washington seriously overestimates its ability to influence or change Damascus’s behavior.

In theory, deterring the future use of chemical weapons requires the United States to make the costs of using these weapons unacceptably high. Over the course of the civil war, the Syrian government has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to absorb a great deal of military and economic costs. A military strike against Syrian air bases or chemical weapon sites may cause some temporary slowdown in the regime’s operations but it will neither end the civil war nor prevent the regime from using chemical weapons in the future. Moreover, Russian and, to a lesser extent, Iranian support for the Syrian government will help insulate Syria from the costs of U.S. military action.

Using military force to prevent future chemical weapons attacks would require much more than a limited attack. Short of deposing Assad, which Russia and Iran would try hard to prevent, the United States would have to carry out sustained attacks against air bases, command and control assets, and chemical weapons sites to degrade the regime’s ability to conduct future chemical weapons attacks. This would be a major escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria, which is at odds with President Trump’s desire to reduce America’s involvement in the country. There is also no guarantee that Assad and his allies would be cowed by a U.S. escalation. If Syria responds with more chemical weapons attacks or some other form of counter-escalation the United States would have to decide to up the ante or back down.

Another risk of a larger U.S. military response is the increased likelihood of inadvertent escalation with Russia. A sustained U.S. military pressure campaign that lasts long enough to significantly degrades the Assad regime’s chemical weapon capabilities would necessarily increase the probability of American and Russian forces making contact with one another.

Figuring out what limited military attack can deter Assad from using chemical weapons without risking a broader escalation of the U.S. role in Syria—what my colleague John Glaser called the “Goldilocks military option”—is a practically impossible needle for the Trump administration to thread. A strike that minimizes escalation risks will be too small to change Assad’s calculus about chemical weapons and a larger attack risks escalating a conflict that the United States has no great interest in fighting. The Trump administration must come to terms with the limitations of U.S. military power. 

April 11, 2018 3:01PM

Marijuana Legalization and the Opioid Crisis Creates Strange Bedfellows

In a surprising move, former House speaker John Boehner has joined the board of directors of Acreage Holdings, a multi-state company focused on growing and selling marijuana. Boehner was a long-time opponent to marijuana legalization but is quoted in the Washington Post as saying:

I have concluded descheduling [marijuana] is needed so that we can do research and allow [the Department of Veterans Affairs] to offer it as a treatment option in the fight against the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities.

The Post article goes on to note that:

Descheduling cannabis would not legalize it nationally, but it would end federal marijuana enforcement and allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.

It remains to be seen whether Boehner’s reversal on marijuana legalization is indicative of a larger trend, but at a minimum it is a step in the right direction.

April 11, 2018 2:29PM

Are Shootings More Likely to Occur in Public Schools?

The Parkland shooting, even almost two months later, remains a very painful topic, and there seem to have been many very important factors at play. One that hasn’t been discussed very much, but probably needs to be examined, is whether the kind of schools students attend makes a difference. At least one author, Stella Morabito at The Federalist, has discussed this, and has identified many problems that she thinks are associated with public schools ranging from their large sizes to their seeming hostility to Christianity.

All of the problems she discusses may be factors—school size has been suspect for a long time—but as a starting point we ought to look at the numbers.

Hyewon Kim—a Cato Center for Educational Freedom Intern—compiled information on school shootings in the United States from 2000 to 2018 using the Tribune-Review database. The database is limited to legitimate school shootings; that is, shootings that occurred on or near a K-12 school campus while classes were in session or when students were present. The list also excluded suicide-only incidents.

Hyewon found 134 school shootings from 2000 to 2018. Only eight of these occurred in private schools while 122 occurred in public schools. The type of school could not be definitively classified for 4 of the shootings. As shown in the figure below, about 94 percent of the shootings that could be classified occurred in public schools while only about 6 percent occurred in private schools.

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Since there are many more public schools than private schools, we must consider that difference. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that around 25 percent of U.S. K-12 schools are private, while about 10 percent of schooled children attend private schools. In other words, the data suggest that children that go to private schools are disproportionately less likely to experience a school shooting than children in public schools.

Of course, considering the difference in the number of students across the two sectors does not account for differences in the types of students. After all, at least some of the divergence in school shootings found are likely due to other factors such as household income and parent education levels.

However, a recent study by Danish Shakeel and me, presented at the International School Choice and Reform Conference, finds that private schools experience better school culture than public schools even after controlling for several characteristics such as school size, location, racial composition of students and teachers, and the percent of students from low-income families. We find that private schools are significantly less likely than public schools to experience problems such as student fighting, bullying, and, perhaps most importantly, weapon possession.

Anytime you write about a tragedy and point to your favorite policy reform as the solution, it can seem opportunistic and, frankly, a little callous. But it is not groundless to think that school type could matter, and nothing should be off-limits for discussion to end these sorts of tragedies.

April 11, 2018 12:03PM

Heritage Foundation Calls for LIHTC Repeal

Vanessa Brown Calder and I examined the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) in a November study. The LIHTC is a $9 billion federal program that is supposed to increase the supply of apartment units for people with moderate incomes.

We found that the LIHTC imposes high administrative burdens, generates local government corruption, inflates construction costs, and crowds out market-based housing supply.

The Heritage Foundation recently published its analysis of the LIHTC, and scholars Adam Michel, Norbert Michel, and John Ligon come to similar conclusions.

They find:

  • “The LIHTC is a complex program that has spawned a cottage industry of lawyers and accountants.”
  • “The value of the LIHTC is largely captured by investors and intermediaries, not renters.”
  • “The LIHTC is a costly and inefficient corporate welfare program that has failed to boost the U.S. housing stock.”
  • “Since its inception as part of the 1986 tax reform, the LIHTC has proven ineffective and inefficient.”

The authors conclude that “it is time to repeal the LIHTC and focus on reducing artificial barriers to new housing supply.”

Vanessa examined those artificial barriers in a 2017 Cato study. She argued that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability by cutting the thicket of land-use and zoning regulations that restrict housing supply.

The Heritage scholars concur:

The LIHTC and other housing subsidies are largely treating the symptom of high housing costs, rather than the cause of overly restrictive land-use regulations. Reforms to make it easier to privately build and finance new and expanded housing developments of any type would go a long way toward relieving the current upward pressure on rent in America’s cities.

The LIHTC is a failed federal response to a problem caused—or at least exacerbated—by state and local policies. As Congress considers legislation to adjust some of the provisions in its recent tax reform law, it should put the housing tax credit on the chopping block.

April 11, 2018 10:54AM

No Strategic, Tactical, Legal, or Humanitarian Justification for US Strikes in Syria

President Trump delivered a disturbing tweet this morning regarding a U.S. military strike in Syria, which is reportedly impending:

This amounts to an embrace of Russia's challenge and it risks a significant escalation of the U.S. role in Syria. It is a profoundly dangerous example of brinkmanship. Americans are now supposed to ready themselves for a military clash with a nuclear power over a U.S. military strike against the Assad regime that has no legitimate justification.

First, any U.S. strike against Syria will be illegal unless it first receives explicit authorization from Congress. As was the case with Trump's previous missile strike against the Assad regime last April, he will be acting unlawfully if he takes this action.

Second, what does the administration expect to accomplish here? No U.S. military action short of all-out regime change is going to deter the Assad government from committing future atrocities. The strike in April 2017 had zero strategic or tactical utility. It did nothing to resolve the Syrian civil war. It did not serve U.S. national interests in any tangible way. Nor did it serve any humanitarian objective. The Assad regime has continued to use violence against its own people. 

Third, it strains common sense that we would take an illegal military action with virtually no chance of success and with high risks of escalation because roughly 40 people were killed by chlorine in a civil war that has killed 500,000 people by bullets and bombs. Chemical weapons occupy a special place in our minds as a particularly cruel form of violence, but there is nothing special about them, except perhaps that they are less lethal than the conventional military means by which most Syrians have been killed or maimed in this war.

Reports indicate that the Trump administration is trying to find a Goldilocks military option that would be more damaging than the pin-prick punitive strike last April, but not big enough to entangle the United States in another Middle East quagmire by toppling the Assad government or clashing directly with Russian or Iranian forces in a way that triggers escalatory measures. This is a farcical exercise that ignores the utter lack of strategic, tactical, legal, or humanitarian rationale for military action.

Just days prior to news of this recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, President Trump articulated his desire to withdraw U.S. forces from the country. His instincts were correct

April 11, 2018 9:05AM

Introducing “Checkpoint: America”

Today, the Cato Institute is launching a new online initiative: Checkpoint America: Monitoring the Constitution-Free Zone.

For over 60 years, the executive branch has, through regulatory fiat, imposed a "border zone" that extends as much as 100 miles into the United States. Within this area--which, according to the ACLU, encompasses two-thirds of the U.S. population--are a series of Soviet-style internal checkpoints run by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service. The majority of these stretch across the southwestern United States from southern Calfornia to the Texas Gulf Coast. As outlined below, CBP agents operating these checkpoints routinely violate the constitutional rights of citizens and other who are forced to pass through them to get to work, go to the store, or make it to a vacation destination in the American Southwest.

Because these checkpoints can be either fixed or mobile, research for this project involved the use of multiple data sources to help provide precise geolocational data and detailed physical descriptions of a given fixed checkpoint, or, where captured on overhead imagery, a temporary checkpoint. In particular, prior reports by the Government Accountability Office (2009 and 2017), as well as Google Earth and the Streetview functionality in Google Maps, were critical in helping pinpoint existing checkpoints and making possible relatively precise physical descriptions of the facilities and equipment present at each. The ACLU, including it's Arizona chapter, also provided valuable data.

The need for this project, and for greater scrutiny of these checkpoints, is more pressing than ever.

A 1976 Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Martinez-Fuerte, provides the primary legal justification for CBP's operation of these checkpoints. Because of the sweeping nature of the decision and its ongoing impact, it's worth looking at some of the key particulars of the Court's ruling.

The case, which centered on three separate incidents involving the illicit transportation of Mexican nationals into the United States, examined the question of whether the use of such checkpoints for warrantless seizures and visual inspection (i.e., searches) violated the Fourth Amendment.

Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Powell asserted that given the huge problem of illegal immigration and CBP’s responsibility to prevent it, under “the circumstances of these checkpoint stops, which do not involve searches, the Government or public interest in making such stops outweighs the constitutionally protected interest of the private citizen…In summary, we hold that stops for brief questioning routinely conducted at permanent checkpoints are consistent with the Fourth Amendment and need not be authorized by warrant.”

The majority's reasoning seemed to be that adhering to the Constitution's traditional probable cause standard was too onerous on CBP in its efforts to stem illegal immigration.

Justices Brennan and Marshall dissented forcefully, with Brennan arguing: 

The Court assumes, and I certainly agree, that persons stopped at fixed checkpoints, whether or not referred to a secondary detention area, are "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, since the vehicle and its occupants are subjected to a "visual inspection," the intrusion clearly exceeds mere physical restraint, for officers are able to see more in a stopped vehicle than in vehicles traveling at normal speeds down the highway. As the Court concedes...the checkpoint stop involves essentially the same intrusions as a roving-patrol stop, yet the Court provides no principled basis for distinguishing checkpoint stops.

And there was something even more fundamentally troubling about the majority's opinion: it was arguably racist in character, and would likely lead to racial/ethnic profiling going forward. Quoting Brennan again:

Every American citizen of Mexican ancestry and every Mexican alien lawfully in this country must know after today's decision that he travels the fixed checkpoint highways at the risk of being subjected not only to a stop, but also to detention and interrogation, both prolonged and to an extent far more than for non-Mexican appearing motorists. To be singled out for referral and to be detained and interrogated must be upsetting to any motorist. One wonders what actual experience supports my Brethren's conclusion that referrals "should not be frightening or offensive because of their public and relatively routine nature."...In point of fact, referrals, viewed in context, are not relatively routine; thousands are otherwise permitted to pass. But for the arbitrarily selected motorists who must suffer the delay and humiliation of detention and interrogation, the experience can obviously be upsetting. And that experience is particularly vexing for the motorist of Mexican ancestry who is selectively referred, knowing that the officers' target is the Mexican alien. That deep resentment will be stirred by a sense of unfair discrimination is not difficult to foresee.

Indeed, one need not actually be a Mexican or have Mexican ancestry to be victimized at one of these checkpoints. Just being dark-skinned and having an accent was enough for Armenian-American immigrant Greg Rosenberg to be stopped, roughed up, and detained without charge for 19 days after an encounter with CBP agents at the Laredo, Texas checkpoint in 2014. Through 2015, at least 35 people have been shot and killed by CBP agents, according to data compiled by the ACLU and CBP' own internal data. To date, no agents involved in these use-of-force incidents has been fired.

For too many American immigrants or legal permanent residents living in or just passing through the southwestern United States, Justice Brennan's fears of these checkpoints becoming racial profiling and civil liberties violation stations long ago became a reality.

The checkpoints are also largely ineffective in performing their stated task: catching illegal border crossers.

As the 2017 GAO report referenced above notes (p. 38):

CBP reported in the budget justification that apprehensions at checkpoints ranged from 1.34 to 2.52 percent of nationwide apprehensions across fiscal years 2013 through 2016.

The 2009 GAO report, also referenced above, noted (p. 5) that approximately 4% of deployed CBP agents were deployed at these internal checkpoints. Thus, a significant portion of CBP agents are tied to checkpoints that account for a miniscule portion of apprehensions of persons not legally authorized to be in the United States.

Additionally, as GAO found in their latest work (2017, p.50), many of the residents living in the southwest border region believe CBP's available manpower should be deployed along the border itself:

For example, members of one community group we interviewed said that there are hundreds of illegal crossers and smugglers who attempt to circumvent the local checkpoint by walking through the surrounding ranches. Echoing views from ranchers we interviewed for a December 2012 report, 56 members of one community group we spoke with as part of this review said that they would like to see Border Patrol direct more enforcement efforts at the immediate border to prevent illegal crossers from entering their communities or properties. Officials we interviewed from two sheriffs’ departments in nearby counties said they have heard similar views from residents.

Instead, CBP insists on keeping checkpoints well away from the border, operating them primarily as generalized crime control stations that disproportionately target American citizens. Indeed, as the 2017 GAO report notes (p. 45):

In addition to analyzing where apprehensions and seizures occurred, we analyzed marijuana seizure data to determine how seizures that occurred at checkpoints compared to those that occurred at other locations...out of the 30,449 seizures that occurred at checkpoints, at least 12,214 (40 percent) were 1 ounce or less of marijuana seized from U.S. citizens. In contrast, seizures occurring at non-checkpoint locations were more often higher-quantities seized from aliens. For example, more than three-quarters of marijuana seizures at non-checkpoint locations were of over 50 pounds (25,792 out of 33,477 seizures).

Thus, in addition to failing at their primary mission of curtailing illegal border crossings, CBP personnel manning these stations are running largely useless "weed dime-bag checkpoints" that only help to perpetuate the failed War on Drugs.

Beginning in 2014, CBP officials in Arizona reacted with threats and intimidation as a group of citizens in the town of Arivaca attempted to monitor the local CBP checkpoint for potential rights violations. In response, the citizens sued the CBP for the right to record or otherwise monitor CBP activities at the checkpoint. A lower court tossed the case in 2016, but the Arivaca residents appealed and in February 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the case, which has been remanded to the U.S. District Court in Tuscon.

The fact that CBP agents are attempting to prevent American citizens from monitoring checkpoint activities only underscores why the efforts of the people of Arivaca, as well as this new Cato project, are so important in the ongoing effort to prevent and expose misconduct and constitutional rights violations by CBP personnel. It is also hoped that this project will help spur a long overdue discussion about the very rationale behind these checkpoints.

Ironically, in his search for additional manpower to police the southern border, President Trump has turned to America's military--a move my Cato colleague Alex Nowrasteh has correctly characterized as unnecessary and dangerous.

It is also a less effective measure--fiscally and legally--than disestablishing useless CBP fixed checkpoints and redeploying the hundreds of CBP agents currently manning them down to the southern border. Unlike American troops, CBP agents are law enforcement officers, capable of making arrests and processing illegal border crossers through America's established deportation process. Redistributing exising CBP personnel in this way would also remove a constitutional blight that has plagued American border communities like Arivaca for decades. Whether President Trump will show the wisdom required to adopt such an approach is another matter.

April 11, 2018 8:52AM

287(g) Does Not Fight Crime, But It Does Increase Assaults against Police Officers

Fear of immigrant criminality is driving many changes to domestic immigration enforcement programs during the Trump administration.  One of the earliest such changes was the reactivation of the 287(g) program that allows state or local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law after entering into a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  The Obama administration substantially scaled back 287(g) after numerous government reports found serious flaws in the program.  Gaston County, North Carolina sheriff Alan Cloninger said his sheriff's office enrolled in 287(g), “for the protection of the citizens of Gaston County."  Sheriff Cloninger's desire to increase public safety is the primary reason, if not the only reason, why 76 local and state level law enforcement agencies across the country have enrolled in 287(g).

Surprisingly, there is little research on whether 287(g) had any effect on crime.  To test whether 287(g) had its intended effect, Cato research associate Andrew Forrester and I investigated whether 287(g) adoption actually lowered crime rates in North Carolina counties where it was established.  From 2003 through 2013, we find no statistically significant relationship between crime rates in counties that adopted 287(g) agreements relative to those that did not in North Carolina.  Importantly, we look at the number of deportations due to 287(g) enforcement by county, which allows us to examine 287(g)’s specific effects.  This means that 287(g) failed to reduce crime in counties where it was activated prior to 2013 when the Obama administration canceled many 287(g) agreements across the country.

In North Carolina, the crime-prevention justification for 287(g) does not hold but neither does the primary critique that it would raise crime rates by reducing citizen cooperation with the police.  It is possible that immigrants in 287(g) counties reported fewer crimes due to fear of immigration enforcement and, thus, an increase in crime would not be recorded in official statistics.  However, some crimes, like murder, are difficult to hide and tend to be reported regardless of local immigration enforcement policies.  To account for this, we further break down the crime rates by the offense and find no relationship between 287(g) and murder or any other individual crime.  Since crime rates did not increase after 287(g) adoption in North Carolina counties, it did not impact trust between local police and the population enough to affect crime rates.   

The only statistically significant relationship that we did find was an increase in the average number of assaults against police officers in 287(g) counties.  We do not know why 287(g) is causally related to the increase in assaults against police officers and we do not know the identities or characteristics of those who committed them.  Besides otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who are deported as a result of 287(g) and their American friends, families, consumers, employers, and landlords, police officers in North Carolina also appear to be victims of this program that fails to reduce crime.

Almost 62 percent of the 287(g) agreements currently in effect, 47 out of 76, were signed after President Trump took office.  In the coming months and years, many more state and local law enforcement agencies could also enroll in 287(g) out of the desire to reduce crime.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney recently said:  

The intent [of 287(g)] was to make sure we're taking felons and gang members, who are violent, out of play . . . If you apply [the program] specific to those reasons, I think you'd have a totally different outcome.  If you're asking everybody about their national origin, I think it's a different application.  And so if it were as it were designed, I think it's a good tool. I don't know that it's being applied that way.

Our research addresses Chief Putney’s concern that 287(g) is not an effective anti-crime tool.  The experience of North Carolina’s counties where 287(g) failed to reduce crime while it increased the number of assaults against police officers should at least be a warning to other counties and police agencies that are considering joining this program: It will not reduce crime.