Tag: #Cato2016

Assessing Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama leaves office today at Noon. His critics are happy to see him go, even as some acknowledge that he carried himself with dignity and grace for eight years in office. He departs the presidency with favorable approval ratings among the public at large, but is handing over power to a person who seems committed to overturning everything that he has done.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy doctrine is enigmatic, at best.  Obama, in contrast, had a concise and tidy way to explain his approach : “Don’t do stupid s***.”

Alas, he wasn’t always successful. For all the complaints that Obama was too reticent to use military power, his actions as president don’t betray great skepticism of kinetic military operations (aka war). Some of those not-quite-wars weren’t entirely successful, others were an abysmal failure. I discuss some of these issues in this podcast with Caleb Brown.

He twice increased the number of U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009, even though he doubted at the time that they would be able to accomplish their mission. The United States still has 8,500 U.S. troops fighting in what is now America’s longest war.

Without congressional authorization, he carried out an air campaign over Libya that contributed to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s decades-long regime. Few people shed any tears for the crazy colonel (Hillary Clinton even laughed about it), but the country has been gripped by chaos and violence ever since.

Obama’s war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq similarly lacked congressional authorization. It has been marginally more effective, largely because the many different actors threatened by ISIS’s reign of terror have managed to squeeze it on all sides. But, as in Libya, the question of what comes after looms large.

And when Barack Obama wasn’t willing to use American military power directly, through either ground troops or drones, he did provide assistance, including lethal assistance, to those who were doing the fighting. But war by proxy is always difficult, as the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen attest.

The United States has struggled to prevail militarily in a host of conflicts during Barack Obama’s two terms in office. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Obama hasn’t used force often enough, or doggedly enough, or smartly enough. More likely, it means that many of the problems that he has attempted to solve aren’t conducive to military solutions. And the claim that Obama has gutted the U.S. military conveniently ignores that Pentagon spending was higher during his eight years in office than during George W. Bush’s, and that we spend more every year, in real terms, than we spent during the Cold War. Military spending is down since 2012, but is still 30 percent higher than in 2001.

On the plus side, Barack Obama should get credit for normalizing relations with Cuba and moving to expand economic relations with our Caribbean neighbor. Critics of the move, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), point out that Raul Castro’s regime hasn’t reciprocated by improving its human rights record. But the embargo has similarly failed to crack open the regime. Congress and incoming-President Trump should finish the job, relax the remaining restrictions, and enable greater interactions between the Cuban people and their neighbors to the north.

President Obama successfully negotiated a deal that makes it substantially harder for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Critics claim that there was a better deal to be had, or that there should have been no deal at all. But, without a deal, Iran was well on its way to becoming a nuclear weapon state, and military action would have merely delayed the program, and at great cost in human lives. The deal will need to be monitored closely, as Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis affirmed in his confirmation hearings last week. A progress review by the International Crisis Group on the one-year anniversary of the deal’s implementation concluded that, thus far, it was “effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons, while opening the door to the country’s international rehabilitation and economic recovery.”

Lastly, President Obama deserves credit for resisting the bipartisan calls to get the United States more deeply embroiled in the Syrian civil war. His greatest error with respect to Syria was his demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”, and his proclaimed red line concerning the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against opposition forces. He wisely backed away from this ill-considered pledge when he ignored the political class in Washington, and listened to the America people who wanted no part of another Middle Eastern conflict. The Syrian civil war is a grave human tragedy, with hundreds of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes. But Obama’s critics, who believe he should have defied public opinion, and launched military strikes in September 2013, fail to show how such actions would have hastened the war’s end.

We should judge U.S. president’s foreign policies by whether they improved American security and prosperity, or whether they made Americans less safe and less prosperous. By that standard, Barack Obama could have done far worse.

The Role of States, as States, in the Electoral College

Of all those whose predictions were dashed by this year’s presidential outcome (“Trump is headed toward a major loss” his Oct. 19 headline blared), few have been more exercised than the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne (“white identity politics and male self-assertion triumphed” he railed the day after). Yesterday, in a piece titled “America will soon be ruled by a minority,” he joined the chorus now condemning the “undemocratic” Electoral College—in the name of the Founders, no less, the very men who created it. Ever the good progressive, he fails to appreciate the role states were meant to play in ordering our public affairs.

This round, of course, it’s the disparity between the Electoral College vote and the popular vote that animates Dionne: “For the next two and probably four years,” he writes, “a majority of Americans will be governed by politicians largely elected by a minority of us.”

Trump Understands Housing

Trump won, and free market types have valid concerns about a Trump presidency. It certainly won’t be a conventionally free-market administration, and it won’t likely be an ideologically coherent one in the conventional Republican sense. However, one area that free-marketers can find some solace is development regulation. In fact, as a developer and businessman himself, there’s reason to think that Trump intuitively understands this policy area better than any other and self-interest makes him an ally.

All the way back in August, Trump spoke to the National Association of Homebuilders and decried the “horrible regulations” that are stacked against developers to the resounding cheers of the crowd. He described development regulations as increasing by almost thirty percent over the past five years, and complained about the “frivolous lawsuits” brought against homebuilders. Notably, he even framed the discussion in terms of low-cost housing, rather than housing affordability.

Decades of experience taught Trump that more regulation means higher cost housing. Taken together, Trump emphasized that development regulations increase the cost of housing by a whopping 25%. Although that figure may sound substantial, it may actually underestimate the impact of regulation on housing prices in some areas of the country. In Manhattan, for instance, it’s estimated that up to half of the price paid for housing is attributable to the hidden costs of restrictive zoning regulations alone.

Topics:

Trump, Trade and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump has been touting staunchly protectionist and isolationist rhetoric on trade policy throughout his campaign. Whether this was merely campaign-talk is still to be seen.

However, at his core, Trump is a businessman. In the business world, isolationism is synonymous with self-destruction.

So when Trump brandishes protectionist rhetoric and sullies the role of international trade, he’s ignoring the fact that, in international relations, trade also serves as an expression of diplomatic goodwill and a means for constructive connectivity. Trade could also promote and advance free market principles abroad.

Take China, for instance. Beijing is embarking on a new era of “economic diplomacy”: trade and foreign investment have become the preferred tools for engaging with the international community, as well as for boosting domestic economic growth. China’s relatively new $1 trillion New Silk Road trade and investment initiative spanning several countries and continents attests to just that.

Instead of taking the opportunity to forge beneficial economic and trade ties with Beijing, Trump is instead threatening to impose high tariffs on China and declaring it a currency manipulator. However, doing so would actually isolate the United States’ economic interests rather than “protect” them, especially in the long run.

Trump will now have to quickly transition from a businessman into a statesman. In the business world, there is something to be said for taking a tough, zero-sum approach to negotiations. But in international relations, flippant threats and tough-talk—especially when it comes to the world’s second largest economy, as well as a nuclear power—is tantamount to recklessness, and likely to cause more harm than good.

Lastly, there are reasons to doubt whether Congress will comply with Trump’s trade and foreign policy stance. Members may instead insist that trade within a mutually beneficial arrangement, and not economic isolationism, will lead to more U.S. jobs and overall economic growth.

Donald Trump and the Gift of Fear

The prospect of Donald Trump as president is only slightly less ridiculous than the idea of Charlie Sheen with nukes—and possibly more frightening. And yet, it looks as though the verbally incontinent celebreality billionaire has a one in three chance of being elected come Tuesday. 

Terrifying, yes, but fear can be useful. In this case, it ought to concentrate the mind wonderfully: if someone so manifestly unfit, so transparently likely to abuse power, can come within striking distance of the presidency, then maybe it was a bad idea to concentrate so much power in the Oval Office in the first place.    

It’s no secret that the “most powerful office in the world” grew even more powerful in the Bush-Obama years. Both presidents stretched the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force into a wholesale delegation of congressional war powers broad enough to underwrite open-ended, globe-spanning war. Bush began—and Obama continued—the host of secret dragnet surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden—and others we’re still largely the dark about. And lately, on the home front, Obama has used the power of the pen to rewrite broad swathes of American law and spend billions of dollars Congress never appropriated. 

America’s center-left papers of record have lately begun to notice that the vast powers recent presidents have forged would be available to Trump as well. The New York Times’s Carl Hulse writes that Obama’s assertion of a presidential power of the purse could have ”huge consequences for our constitutional democracy…. How would lawmakers react if a willful new chief executive, unable to win money from Congress for a wall on the Mexican border, simply shifted $7 billion from another account and built it anyway?” And a month ago, the Washington Post kicked off a series of half a dozen editorials warning what would befall the republic should Trump ascend to Real Ultimate Power: “A President Trump could, unilaterally, change this country to its core,” the Post’s editorialists argued, and the other branches won’t be able to stop him: “in the U.S. System, the scope for executive action is, as we will lay out in a series of editorials next week, astonishingly broad.” 

It was nice to see the Post editorial board, which had called Obama’s recess-appointments gambit “a justifiable power grab,” evince some concern about potential abuses of executive power. Through five more editorials, they’d go on to observe that a President Trump could, among other abuses: “launch wars”; “take the oil”; “assassinate foreigners who opposed him”; issue a secret legal opinion overturning the torture ban; “launch surveillance programs targeting foreigners without informing Congress”; pull out of NAFTA, start a trade war, and “destroy the world economy.” An imposing parade of horribles, all leading up to the limpest of takeaways: “the nation should not subject itself to such a risk.” In other words, don’t vote for Trump. OK, then: Problem solved?

Ending the Tax Breaks for Real Estate

The release of a snippet of Donald Trump’s tax return from 1995 showing a net operating loss of nearly $1 billion, potentially allowing him to legally avoid paying taxes for an 18 year period, has given us another reason to condemn Donald Trump and the complicated provisions in the tax code pertaining to real estate that allow Trump and others like him to pay much less in taxes than the rest of us. One tax professional told me that there’s no reason for a big real estate concern to ever pay income taxes of any kind to the government if they have an accounting firm that knows what it’s doing.

A few people have expressed a hope that, should Trump lose, Congress would begin to look at some of the various real estate tax loopholes that allow such legal tax evasion. I would wholeheartedly agree with such sentiments, and humbly suggest that the purge begin with the most egregious and expensive real estate tax break of them all–the mortgage interest deduction. 

The MID costs the government $80 billion a year in lost revenue and is one of the most expensive tax breaks in the code. It may also be the least effective–because it’s a deduction (as opposed to a credit, or direct subsidy) that means that only the wealthiest homeowners (the top 30% or so) can actually take the deduction.

American Military Personnel Question Intervention this Election

Newly anointed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wasted no time in criticizing the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For decades the GOP has claimed to uniquely represent American military personnel.

Service members aren’t allowed to become publicly involved in partisan politics. However, they do speak indirectly, via polls and contributions.

It turns out that they favor neither Democrats nor Republicans. Rather, this campaign a plurality is supporting the least militaristic of the candidates, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.

The LP is a perennial and distant third place contender. But this election might be different. Johnson has been polling in double digits and could hold the balance of power, especially with the help of military voters. For instance, a July poll found Johnson well ahead of the two major party candidates among active duty personnel.