Archives: 07/2019

Trump Promises Spending Cuts — Someday

Possibly good news on the front page of the Washington Post today. A headline reads:

aims to cut
after 2020

The article begins:

President Trump has instructed aides to prepare for sweeping budget cuts if he wins a second term in the White House, five people briefed on the discussions said, a move that would dramatically reverse the big-spending approach he adopted during his first 30 months in office….

[But for now] Trump is advocating swiftly lifting the federal debt ceiling, which would allow for more spending and borrowing.

And that’s what we’ve gotten in Trump’s first two and a half years, including two years with full Republican control of government. Federal revenue has been rising strongly, about to hit $4 trillion. But spending is rising even faster, so that the deficit is going to hit $1 trillion this year and then stay there. That’s why the national debt has kept on growing under a Republican administration, now over $22 trillion.

We’ve heard this song before – spend now, raise the debt ceiling now, and then we’ll cut spending later. Back in 2012 it was reported that President Obama planned to propose spending cuts in his next budget. But under both George W. Bush and Obama, spending kept on rising (except for a brief hiatus created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, a product of divided government).

That’s why fiscal conservatives have become very skeptical of bills that promise to cut spending some day—not this year, not next year, but swear to God some time in the next ten years. As the White Queen said to Alice, “Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” Cuts tomorrow and cuts in the out-years and cuts after the next election—but never cuts today.

The Vacuum of Space Policy

I was born in August 1969, a few weeks after Neil Armstrong’s “small step” onto the moon. Nonetheless, I was a child of the space age, idolizing Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, scrapbooking articles on the Viking landers and Voyager probes, and building lots (and lots and lots) of model rockets. NASA’s feats and American space policy were awe-inspiring.

Yet, from today’s vantage point, it’s hard not to question the Apollo program. Yes, we got to the moon, but to what end? Of the 10 Apollo missions originally planned for the lunar surface, only seven flew, and one of them aborted its landing; the rest were cancelled. It’s as if, once the Apollo astronauts completed their initial science mission and trundled off some 800 pounds of moon rocks, policymakers asked, “OK, now what?” The mission cancellations suggest they didn’t have an answer.

That pattern played out again with Skylab, the United States’ first space station. It hosted all of three missions before it was abandoned like an orbiting foreclosed house and ultimately crashed to earth.

In fairness, other NASA manned missions fared better. The space shuttles (STS) flew 135 missions between 1981 and 2011. (Also worth remembering: two missions ended tragically.) The International Space Station (ISS) continues its manned mission that began in 2000, conducting experiments and observations. And NASA’s unmanned programs have yielded stunning achievements, as have seemingly countless other government and commercial satellites. The unmanned programs, STS, and ISS had answers to the “Now what?” question: conducting ongoing scientific research, providing services (e.g., communications, weather-monitoring, reconnaissance), and delivering and servicing satellites. Those benefits are ongoing; in contrast, Apollo brings to mind the Simpsons spoof, “The Moon of Earth.”

No Evidence Migrant Families Are Aiding Drug Smuggling

Families and children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border turn themselves in to Border Patrol and receive background checks, which they virtually always pass, prior to their release into the country. Yet security officials insist that these migrants are nonetheless a serious security concern. These officials have relentlessly promoted one narrative in particular for years: that asylum-seeking families unwittingly help drug smugglers. Here are a few examples:

Border Patrol Union Spokesman Chris Cabrera, October 2015: Families “are human screens that tie up Border Patrol Agents while the cartels smuggle narcotics and higher value aliens behind them.”

Border Patrol Union President Brandon Judd, February 2016: They “completely tied up our manpower and allowed the cartels to smuggle whatever they wanted across our border.”

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan, July 2018: “The way [smugglers] use families and children to tie up Border Patrol resources while they bring narcotics through an adjacent point of the border … creates operational challenges and that’s exactly why we’re trying to prevent the vulnerable populations from crossing between ports of entry illegally because it takes time and energy and focus away from the hardened smugglers and criminals.”

Intuitively, the theory could make sense. If this were the case, it would even more strongly advise DHS to process all asylum seekers at ports of entry—which it refuses to do. But the evidence that we have lends no support for the belief that this phenomenon has made any significant changes in border drug trafficking.

Obviously, we can’t observe the drugs that escape Border Patrol’s notice, but Border Patrol’s statistics on drug interdiction reveal that families don’t seem to have affected drug trafficking. They show that the average Border Patrol agent does not seize greater or fewer hard drugs when more families appear at the border. They don’t seize greater or fewer relative to officers at ports of entry. They don’t seize greater or fewer relative to other agents in sectors who received fewer families. Agents also don’t seize a greater share further in the interior, indicating that families turning themselves in close to the border likely did not allow more to slip past the front line.

These statistics lead to the conclusion that families have largely not affected drug smuggling. Even if families do act as a diversion, they appear no more effective than whatever diversions drug runners used before families and children started to arrive in larger numbers in 2014.

Families haven’t affected Border Patrol’s seizures

The absolute number of Border Patrol seizures and the pounds seized by Border Patrol have indeed declined, but this falloff is entirely due to fewer marijuana seizures. As I documented in my Cato policy analysis last year, U.S. state-level legalization starting in 2014 is driving the decline in marijuana seizures. Even Border Patrol has attributed the decline in seizures to the fact that “increase[d] legalization in the United States [h]as reduced demand” for Mexican marijuana, not to families or children distracting agents. For this reason, this post will focus on the three other drugs for which Border Patrol has regularly published data: cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

Figure 1 compares the quarterly number of Border Patrol apprehensions of families and children per Border Patrol agent to the quarterly change in the amount of cocaine, meth, or heroin seized per agent. There are three dots for each quarter, representing the change in the amount seized for the three drug types from the prior period. During this time, greater apprehensions of families and children are not associated with larger or smaller seizures of drugs by Border Patrol. The trend is not significant.

Figure 1: Quarterly Change in Family & Child Apprehensions Per Agent and Percentage Change in Seizure Amounts of Cocaine, Meth, and Heroin Per Agent

In itself, Figure 1 shows that Border Patrol has the capacity to seize the same quantity of drugs regardless of the number of families and children it apprehends. But perhaps more drugs are coming overall, meaning that more are making it past the agents. If this is what is happening, it could imply that smugglers are shifting the locations of their smuggling efforts to take advantage of distracted agents.

One way that this could occur is that smugglers might move drugs away from the ports of entry to sneak them past agents apprehending families and children between ports. Figure 2 tests this by comparing the change in family and child apprehensions per agent to the change in the share of cocaine, meth, and heroin seizures made between ports of entry in a given quarter. Once again, there is no relationship between increases or decreases in families and children and changes in the share seized between ports. Again, the trend is not significant. 

Figure 2: Quarterly Change in Family & Child Apprehensions Per Agent and Change in Share of Cocaine, Meth, and Heroin Pounds Seized Between Ports

Another way that smuggling could shift is toward regions of the border where more families and children are crossing. Border Patrol has published regional data only for a single drug—cocaine—and only for fiscal years 2011 to 2018 (so not quarterly and over a shorter span). Nonetheless, this dataset allows us to track changes in seizure variation for cocaine between the nine Border Patrol sectors.

Figure 3 shows the relationship between changes in the share of apprehensions who were children or families in a sector and the change in that sector’s share of all cocaine seizures. If drug smugglers were shifting their traffic to different areas of the border in response to the location of apprehensions, or Border Patrol became less effective due to those apprehensions, we would expect to see an association between apprehensions and seizures—either up or down—but there is no difference.

Figure 3: Annual Change in the Share of Family and Child Apprehensions in a Sector and Annual Change in Sector’s Share of All Southwest Border Patrol Cocaine Seizures

Here’s a final test of this hypothesis. We know that families and children are turning themselves in close to the border. According to the GAO, 80 percent of apprehensions occurred within 10 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016. This was a 17-point increase prior to the surge in families in 2012. If a diversion effect exists at all, it should affect seizures closer to the border. As more drugs escape notice, the share of drugs seized further into the interior should rise.

Figure 4 compares the annual percentage point change in the share of all drug seizures that occurred more than 10 miles from the border in a sector to the percentage point change in the sector’s share of apprehensions more than 10 miles from the border (from 2013-2016). This is the number of seizure incidents—rather than pounds seized—and it includes all drugs, not just the three main hard drug types. A positive relationship would indicate that drug seizures generally follow apprehensions. A negative relationship would show that drug seizures occur further into the interior as apprehensions occur closer to the border. But surprisingly, there is no relationship, indicating that drug seizure activity was largely unaffected by the location of apprehensions.

Figure 4: Annual Change in the Share of Apprehensions in a Sector More than 10 Miles from the Border and Annual Change in Sector’s Share of Drug Seizures More than 10 Miles from the Border

Of course, these are all apprehensions, not just those for families and children. Focusing on this group, Figure 5 displays the annual percentage point change in the share of drug seizures (again, incidents rather than pounds) more than 10 miles from the border in a sector compared to the annual percentage point change in the sector’s share of family and child apprehensions. Once again, these two factors are not related. This strongly implies that a shift toward more families doesn’t result in more drugs getting past the frontline agents. 

Figure 5: Change in the Share of Family and Child Apprehensions and Change in Share of Seizures More than 10 Miles From Border By Sector

There are numerous other ways to slice the data—comparing absolute changes versus percentage changes or change in the share versus change in the absolute amount—but none of these other approaches reveal anything significant. The quarterly data doesn’t extend through 2019, which has seen the greatest number of families and children. Annual data have too few observations to be very useful, and 2019 is an outlier year anyway, but the 2019 seizure statistics so far don’t reveal anything particularly interesting through June. Overall, Border Patrol drug seizures are somewhat higher, but the share seized between ports of entry in 2019 has not changed significantly during the surge in families.

Figure 6: Share of Cocaine, Meth, and Heroin Pounds Seized Between Ports


Although government officials latched onto the narrative that families were significantly benefiting drug smugglers, Customs and Border Protection initially denied any connection between the asylum seekers and drug smuggling when families first started coming in larger numbers in 2014. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel told the Washington Post in June 2014 that CBP has seen “no indication that drug interdiction operations have been negatively impacted by our efforts to process the influx” of migrants.

How is it possible that Border Patrol is doing as good of a job at stopping drug smuggling if families have diverted so many of its resources? First of all, while families might tie up resources with processing, they are much easier to “apprehend” than chasing single men through the desert, so it is not obvious exactly how many resources families consume relative to other types of crossers.

More significantly, hard drugs are almost exclusively smuggled through ports of entry because it is easier to conceal them in legal luggage than to conceal people walking across the U.S.-Mexico border—it’s also a lot less risky for the drug runner. Even with a decline in Border Patrol’s resources, it still isn’t worth it for narcotraffickers to significantly change their trafficking model and attempt to smuggle more between ports of entry.

In addition, the disappearance of marijuana smuggling has freed up a tremendous amount of resources for other enforcement activities. The agency is on pace to seize about 90 percent less marijuana in 2019 than in 2013—about 2.1 million fewer pounds. Busts also are likely down by about 70 percent—about 10,500 fewer. For comparison, Border Patrol made only 2,400 busts for all non-marijuana drugs in 2018.

The DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment for 2018 predicted that “Mexico-produced marijuana will continue to be trafficked into the United States … though in declining amounts” because “domestic production and trafficking of marijuana will likely increase as more states adopt or change current marijuana laws.” In other words, the DEA is predicting that even more resources will become available for Border Patrol to deal with the asylum-seeking families along the border. There is no need to treat these peaceful immigrants as a national security threat.

Finally, families may indeed be diversions for drug runners, at least on occasion, but Border Patrol’s statistics indicate that they are not significantly more effective at being a diversion than the methods smugglers used before they had families available to them. In other words, Border Patrol agents may be observing a real phenomenon, while not considering that if families weren’t there, traffickers would just find another way to achieve the same ends. 

How Large Is American Government?

America’s strong economic growth and high living standards were built on our relatively smaller government. U.S. per capita income is higher than nearly all major countries and our government spending is still somewhat less.

However, America’s lower-spending advantage has diminished. The OECD publishes data on total federal-state-local government spending as a percentage of GDP for its member countries. The chart shows spending for the United States and for the simple average of 30 OECD countries which have data back to 1995. These are high-income countries such as Canada, Germany, and Japan.

The chart shows that the United States used to have a 10 percentage point advantage in government size, but that has now fallen to just 5 percentage points. In 1995, spending was 37.1 percent in the U.S. and 47.3 percent in the OECD. In 2018, spending was 37.8 percent in the U.S. and 42.9 percent in the OECD. The U.S. spending advantage was cut in half mainly under President George W. Bush.

A number of high-income nations have smaller governments than does the United States, including Australia, Ireland, Lithuania, South Korea, and Switzerland.

Note: The 30 OECD countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Washington Post Revelation of Pain Pill Distribution Only Helps to Fuel the False Narrative

The Washington Post recently received access to a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration that tracks the manufacture and distribution of every prescription opioid in the country. It reported that 76 billion pills were distributed throughout the US between 2006 and 2012, with higher volumes shipped to the areas that were most hard hit with opioid-related overdose deaths. 

This is being offered as proof that the overprescribing of prescription opioids caused the overdose crisis. But this flies in the face of other powerful evidence. Research reported in the Journal of Pain Research last February that examined data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there is no correlation between the number of pain pill prescriptions and “past-month nonmedical use” or  past-year diagnosis of “pain reliever use disorder” among adults. This was corroborated by a study published by the Cato Institute the same month.

Research from the University of Pittsburgh shows overdose deaths from nonmedical use of licit and illicit drugs have been on a steady exponential increase since the 1970s, with no evidence of slowing. The only changes over the decades pertain to the particular drug in vogue during any period. In the early part of this century, the drugs in vogue were diverted prescription opioids. 

To be sure, the lure of easy money offered by a black market fueled by drug prohibition brings out the worst in people, and doctors and pharmacists were no exception. Some doctors and pharmacists leveraged their professional licenses and teamed up with regional drug dealers to supply nonmedical users with large quantities of their preferred drug. But the blame for such behavior should be placed where it belongs: drug prohibition.

Those unethical health care providers were the exception, not the rule. And they were providing drugs to mostly nonmedical users, sometimes under the guise of providing patient care. Meanwhile, the nonmedical use of prescription opioids peaked in 2012, as heroin became cheaper and more available than diverted pain pills. The prescription of high-dose opioids peaked in 2008 and the number dropped more than 58 percent by 2017. Yet the overdose rate accelerated as the prescription numbers decreased, because nonmedical users migrated to more readily available heroin and fentanyl. By 2015 there was already evidence that heroin was becoming the new drug in vogue, as up to one-third of heroin addicts undergoing rehab stated they initiated drug use with the opioid heroin.

The CDC released preliminary estimates of 2018 opioid-related overdose deaths July 17, and they suggest the death toll may be tapering off slightly, down to 47,590 from roughly 49,000 in 2017. One aspect of these numbers the media failed to report was that 67 percent of those deaths involved illicit fentanyl, one-third involved heroin, and just under one-third also involved cocaine. About one-fourth of opioid-related overdose deaths involved any prescription pain killer, and more than three quarters of them also involved heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, or tranquilizers. 

The overdose problem has never been a product of doctors treating patients for pain. It has always been a product of (a growing population of) nonmedical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition. While the possible downturn or leveling off in the mortality rate is encouraging, this can largely be attributed to the adoption of harm reduction measures, such as naloxone distribution and needle-exchange programs, which need to be more widely-adopted.

The number of opioids prescribed greatly increased during the early part of this century, as doctors were–rightly–encouraged to be more concerned with alleviating pain and patients were–rightly–assured that opioids in the medical setting have a low overdose and addiction potential. That meant more pain pills were available for diversion to the black market for nonmedical use. And, as mentioned above, there were some doctors and pharmacists who were unethical and unscrupulous. But, at the end of the day, there is no correlation between the number of pills prescribed and the incidence of nonmedical use or use disorder.

The continued obsession about the number of pain pills being prescribed causes patients to go undertreated for their pain and will not make one IV drug user pull the needle out of their arm.

Justice John Paul Stevens, R.I.P.

Justice Stevens, who died yesterday at age 99, was the longest-lived justice in American history and the third-longest serving. A proud son of the Midwest, he lived an amazing American life that included witnessing Babe Ruth’s “called shot” and a valorous WWII stint in the Navy. I never had the chance to meet him but, as the personal accounts and eulogies now attest, he was a consummate gentleman and all class, a bow-tied throwback to an era to which we should all attitudinally aspire.  

Stevens, nominated by President Ford in 1975 as the first new justice after Roe v. Wade, had a confirmation process that lasted all of 19 days and concluded with a 98-0 vote. (A different world, indeed.) From 1994 until his retirement in 2010, he was the senior associate justice, meaning the one who assigned opinions whenever the chief justice was on the other side. A moderate conservative when he was on the Seventh Circuit—perhaps the last of the Rockefeller Republicans—Stevens gradually moved left and ended up as the co-leader, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc.  

In his nearly 35 years on the Court, Justice Stevens left a lasting legacy, with majority opinions in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council (granting judicial deference to administrative agencies), Apprendi v. New Jersey (making sentencing guidelines non-binding), Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (striking down military commissions), Kelo v. City of New London (allowing the taking of private property to give to another private owner), and Massachusetts v. EPA (allowing states to sue the EPA over greenhouse gases), as well as famous dissents in Texas v. Johnson (would’ve allowed laws against flag burning), Bush v. Gore (would’ve allowed vote-counting to continue in the 2000 presidential election), D.C. v. Heller (would’ve allowed a complete ban on personal firearms), and Citizens United v. FEC (would’ve allowed certain campaign finance restrictions). 

Many legal analyses of Stevens’s work in the last 24 hours have centered on the above cases, but I want to mention his disappointing view of expansive federal power. Especially when interpreting the scope of congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce, Stevens consistently sided with the government.  

He dissented in United States v. Lopez (Gun-Free School Zones Act) and United States v. Morrison (Violence Against Women Act), cases from 1995 and 2000, respectively, that for the first time in decades found that Congress had exceeded its constitutional power under the commerce clause. Five years later, he authored Gonzales v. Raich, which allows the government to enforce the federal criminal ban on marijuana even against patients who grow and consume the plant for their own personal use consistent with state law.  

These sorts of rulings, when combined with his opinions in Kelo, Johnson, Heller, and Citizens United, show that he really didn’t believe in either structural or rights-based protections for individual freedom, at least with the exception of presidential power and criminal procedure. His jurisprudence was difficult to characterize as a matter of conventional judicial methods and modes, but the results were what we’d now doubtlessly call progressive. In other words, he was a lawyer’s lawyer and a man’s man, a war hero and patriot, but no great friend of liberty.

90% of Border Crossers Aren’t Referred for Asylum Interviews

The government is implementing a new proposal that would ban asylum for immigrants coming to the United States through Mexico. It pins the uptick in border crossers on the asylum process, but the government’s statistics reveal that 90 percent of crossers in 2019 were not referred for an asylum interview at the border, and the highest share ever referred was just 19 percent in 2018.

In fact, the rate of referral was just 7 percent in March 2019. This strongly indicates that the asylum ban will not have its intended effects. Figure 1 compares the rate at which undocumented immigrants at the southwest border were referred for asylum interviews at the border—called credible fear interviews—for each year from 2010 and 2019 as well as March 2019—the most recent month available. In no year has more than one in five immigrants stopped either at or between ports of entry entered the asylum process from the border.

Figure 1: Credible Fear Share of Immigrants Detained at the Southwest Border

The pattern is not significantly different for immigrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The highest percentage of credible fear claims was just 30 percent in 2016, and the rate for 2019 is 9 percent. March 2019 was actually just 6 percent. In other words, at the border at least, the asylum ban will have very little effect on most Central American crossers.

Figure 2: Credible Fear Share of Northern Triangle Immigrants Detained at the Southwest Border

The reason that the share isn’t higher could be that the government often simply fails to record statements of fear as documented in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2016 report. Many immigrants may simply not understand asylum law and so turn themselves in without understanding that they need to make a claim. About 8 percent of arrests in 2019 were unaccompanied children who aren’t subject to the credible fear screening process.

The reason for the dramatic falloff in 2019 is that Border Patrol decided to start releasing families without referring them for a credible fear interview at all because it lacked the capacity to hold them, and the Flores agreement requires their release after 20 days anyway.

Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that an asylum ban will not deter many immigrants from coming to the United States in part because—at the border at least—it won’t affect many of them. Of course, once they enter the court system, a blanket ban on asylum will absolutely harm them by entirely eliminating the chance to receive asylum. About one in five asylum applicants would otherwise win their cases. It will likely trigger the deportation of those real asylees but without any reduction in immigration flows.