Archives: 02/2017

SNAP: $15 Billion on Junk Food

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aims for recipients to “make healthy food choices within a limited budget.” SNAP is supposed to “permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet.”

However, the lofty goals of federal programs often differ from the actual results. It turns out that about $15 billion of SNAP benefits are for junk food. Apparently, recipients are not making the nutritious and healthy choices that the government promised.

SNAP, or food stamp, benefits totaled $67 billion in 2016. Food stamps can be used to buy just about any edible item in grocery stores other than alcohol, vitamins, and hot food. But exactly what is being purchased by the program’s 44 million recipients has been mainly shrouded in secrecy—until now.

A November study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally shed light on food stamp purchases. The study examined detailed data for SNAP and non-SNAP shoppers for one large food retailer over a one-year period.

The study found that SNAP shoppers bought slightly more junk food than non-SNAP shoppers. For example, 9.25 percent of total purchases by SNAP shoppers were for “sweetened beverages” such as cola, which compared to 7.1 percent for non-SNAP shoppers. At the same time, SNAP shoppers spent relatively less on nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables.

For SNAP shoppers, “sweetened beverages,” “prepared desserts,” “salty snacks,” “candy,” and “sugar” accounted for 22.6 percent of purchases. These junk food items thus accounted for $15 billion of SNAP purchases in 2016, if the study is representative of all SNAP purchases.

SNAP is a bloated program, and cutting out junk food would be one way to reduce costs. The program was created to tackle hunger, but Harvard University’s Robert Paarlberg noted that on a typical day less than 1 percent of households now face “very low food security.” That low figure contrasts with the 17 percent of U.S. households that currently receive food stamps.

The main food-related health problem for low-income households today is not hunger, but obesity. CDC data show that people with low incomes are more obese than people with high incomes, on average. In general, low-income Americans are suffering not from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food.

Ending SNAP’s junk food subsidies would likely cut demand for the program and reduce taxpayer costs. If policymakers decided that food stamps could only be used for items such as fruits and vegetables, fewer people would use the program, which would be a good thing.

An even better reform would be to end federal involvement in food stamps. Each state could then decide on the overall level of benefits it wanted, and on whether taxpayers should be subsidizing cola, candy, crackers, and cookies.

For more on food stamps, see here and here.

Donald Trump’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”

As any pedantic patriot can tell you, there’s really no such thing as “Presidents’ Day”–the official name for the federal holiday we celebrated on Monday is “Washington’s Birthday.” And it wasn’t the first president’s actual birthday, which is today, February 22.

Washington had his faults, but, especially when compared to most of those who followed him, he provided an admirable model of probity and restraint. The teenage Washington copied in his own hand 110 precepts on etiquette: “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” and, as I noted recently, they make for a pretty stark contrast with the deportment of 1600 Pennsylvania’s current occupant. So, in honor of Washington’s (actual) Birthday, contemplate the distance between our first president and our 45th, with a selection of Washington’s “Rules”–and Trump’s:

Washington’s “Rules”:

Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.

Speak not when you Should hold your Peace

do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein.

Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Carefull to keep your Promise.

Trump: “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one” (campaign rally, North Dakota).

Manufacturing GDP and the Trade Deficit Rise and Fall Together

As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Mr. Trump and his advisers see the U.S. goods trade deficit as an indicator of U.S. economic weakness.” Manufacturing Output and Goods Trade Deficit

Yes, they do. But why?  As the graph clearly shows, the real gross output of U.S. manufacturing rises when the goods trade deficit (both measured in 2009 dollars) is also rising.  When trade deficits fall, so does U.S. manufacturing.  Sinking industries need fewer imported parts and materials, and their unemployed workers can’t afford imports.

Measured in 2009 dollars, the goods trade deficit fell from $863.4 billion in 2006 to $525.2 billion in 2009.  Peter Navarro, the President’s liberal protectionist trade adviser, would apparently call that good news.  The rest of us called it The Great Recession.

Topics:

Event February 27th: U.S. Military Posture and Persian Gulf Oil

Since at least World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by the necessity of securing scarce oil supplies. And for more than 30 years, it has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Many of the defining moments in U.S. foreign policy since then– including the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, the 1980s ‘tanker war’ and even the 1991 Persian Gulf War – have been shaped by this commitment, perhaps most clearly articulated by President Carter in 1980:

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

Yet recent years have seen profound changes in the global oil market. Growth in U.S. domestic production – a result of the shale gas revolution – has returned the United States to the top of global hydrocarbon producer rankings for the first time in decades. A more general shift in production from global south to north has made the United States substantially less reliant on Middle Eastern sources of oil, and more on close neighbors like Canada.

These changes, combined with dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power raise a key question: should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf?

On February 27th, Cato will host a book forum to discuss the recently published book Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil. The book addresses many of these key questions, pulling together an interdisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security.

The book’s essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.

The discussion will feature the book’s editors, Charles Glaser, Professor of Political Science and Director, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the George Washington University and Rosemary Kelanic, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Williams College. Joining them will be Kenneth Vincent, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, George Washington University and John Glaser, Cato’s Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies.

The event promises a fascinating discussion on the energy security roots of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and the future of the U.S. commitment to the region’s oil supplies. You can register for the event here.

Margaret Thatcher’s $3 Trillion Revolution

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 determined to revive the stagnant British economy with market-based reforms. During her 11 years as prime minister, she deregulated, cut marginal tax rates, repealed currency exchange controls, and tamed militant labor unions.

However, it was privatization that became Thatcher’s most important and enduring economic legacy. She popularized the word privatization and oversaw the sale to the public of British Airways, British Telecom, British Steel, and British Gas, and other major businesses.

Spurred by the success of Thatcher’s reforms, privatization swept the world. Governments in more than 100 countries moved thousands of state-owned businesses to the private sector. Since the Iron Lady’s campaign to give ownership of Britain’s economy back to the people, more than $3.3 trillion of government businesses have been privatized around the world.

I take a look back at Thatcher’s privatization reforms in this month’s Cato Journal.

What is the relevance for U.S. policymaking today? Many types of businesses that Britain privatized are still partly or fully owned by governments in this country, including airports, seaports, postal services, air traffic control, electric utilities, and passenger rail. So there is an opportunity here for our leaders to spur growth and innovation by adopting Thatcher’s playbook.

But privatization is important for more than just the economic benefits. Thatcher said privatization is also about “reclaiming territory for freedom” and ensuring that “the state’s power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced.”

In toasting Margaret Thatcher in Washington, February 27, 1981, President Ronald Reagan said “everywhere one looks these days the cult of the state is dying.” Thatcher’s privatization program would help make that promise come true.

The photo shows the free-market friends at the White House, February 28, 1981.

Book Forum: Do States With Nukes Have More Coercive Leverage?

There is considerable debate in both academic and policy circles about the utility of nuclear weapons. Of what use are they? Some say just about all nuclear weapons are good for is self defense. States that possess them can more easily deter attack or invasion. Others argue that possessing nuclear weapons also gives states added leverage to get their way in international politics. In this conception, nuclear weapons add to the ability to coerce other states. Not only can they deter actions we don’t like, but they can help compel others to take actions that we do like.

A new and important book, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy by Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, evaluates the empirical record to test whether or not nuclear weapons aid in coercive diplomacy. Their findings are clear: no, nuclear weapons do not have much coercive utility. States with nukes don’t have more leverage in settling territorial disputes, they’re not more likely to initiate military challenges, they are not more likely to escalate ongoing disputes, and they are not more successful in blackmailing rivals. 

This has significant implications for U.S. foreign policy. What do these findings suggest we should expect from our nuclear-armed rivals, like Russia and China? Does it make sense to undertake preventive military action against nascent nuclear weapons programs in countries like North Korea? If Iran were to get nuclear weapons once the time-limited restrictions in the JCPOA expire (as critics of the deal suggest), how would that influence its behavior in the region?

The authors are coming to the Cato Institute on March 7 to discuss their book and explain their theoretical and empirical findings. Matthew Kroenig will be a discussant and offer comments on the book. You can register to attend the event here

Early Returns on President Trump

During Trump’s surprising presidential campaign, pundits became fond of pointing out that Trump’s supporters took his often-shocking rhetoric seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took his rhetoric literally, but not seriously. Today, however, it is obvious that one should take Trump’s words both seriously and literally. In his first month Trump has been busy matching actions to words, temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and ordering sanctuary cities to detain illegal immigrants, launching work on the U.S.-Mexican border wall, and preparing to lift the ban on the CIA black sites where the United States carried out “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

For those who voted for Trump this first month must surely be a heady viewing experience. For much of the country, however, Trump’s efforts are taking things in the wrong direction, as even his most extreme campaign proposals become reality. From the perspective of the polls, Trump’s first month has met decidedly mixed reviews.

On immigration, for example, Trump signed a short-lived executive order threatening to halt federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that offer protection to illegal immigrants if they do not detain illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities. And before signing two executive orders directing the construction of the U.S.-Mexican border wall, Trump argued that the United States is “in the middle of a crisis border” and that “A nation without borders is not a nation.”

Most Americans see things differently. When asked about illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, a CBS News Poll this month found that 74% of the public thinks they should be allowed to stay, while just 22% thinks they should be required to leave. 61% believe illegal immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship. The same poll found that 59% oppose Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with 37% favoring it.