February 26, 2016 11:45AM

Fact Checking Trump on Trade

Watching the Presidential primary debates, there are numerous instances where I -- and no doubt many others here at Cato and elsewhere -- think, "I should really correct that inaccuracy in a blog post tomorrow."  But sometimes you wake up and find someone else has already done the job for you.  Here are Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee skillfully taking down one of Donald Trump's ridiculous statements on trade:

"I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year [to Mexico], you want to know the truth. We’re losing so much. We’re losing so much with Mexico and China — with China, we’re losing $500 billion a year."   --Trump

Trump has the numbers right on the trade deficit with Mexico and overstates them with China — but he gets the economics very wrong in both cases. A trade deficit means that people in one country are buying more goods from another country than people in the second country are buying from the first country.

So in Mexico’s case, Americans in 2015 purchased $294 billion in goods from Mexico, while Mexico purchased $236 billion in goods from the United States. That results in a trade deficit of $58 billion. In the case of China, Americans in 2015 bought $482 billion in goods from China, while Chinese purchased $116 billion from the U.S., for a trade deficit of $366 billion.

But that money is not “lost.” Americans wanted to buy those products. If Trump sparked a trade war and tariffs were increased on those Chinese goods, then it would raise the cost of those goods to Americans. Perhaps that would reduce the purchases of those goods, and thus reduce the trade deficit — but that would not mean the United States would “gain” money that had been lost.

Trump frequently suggests, as he did in the debate, that Mexico could pay for the wall out of the $58 billion trade deficit. But that is nonsensical. The trade deficit does not go to the government; it just indicates that Americans are buying more goods from Mexico than the other way around.

November 11, 2015 5:30PM

The Reckless Proposal to Impose a No‐​Fly Zone in Syria

Bad foreign policy ideas have a nasty habit of recirculating. One of the worst is the proposal to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to protect rebel forces attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. President Obama has wisely resisted that scheme, but the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has endorsed it. And in the most recent GOP debate, several candidates, especially Senator Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina, enthusiastically signed-on to the strategy. Only Senator Rand Paul unequivocally opposed it.

Even under normal circumstances, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would be a spectacularly bad idea. Such measures were a prelude of America’s disastrous, full-scale military intervention in Iraq, and a similar danger of escalation exists in this case. Moreover, the move would strengthen the position of the ideologically murky amalgam that opposes Assad. The reality is that even the non-ISIS rebel groups exhibit a disturbing level of radical Islamic influence. Indeed, the largest and strongest anti-Assad faction appears to be al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is mystifying why American hawks would want to empower such forces.

But special circumstances in Syria make the no-fly proposal even more dangerous than normal. Russia has intervened in that country and is flying numerous combat missions against rebel units. Establishing a no-fly zone over Moscow’s objections would be extremely provocative. Yet neither Clinton nor the GOP hawks gave any hint that creating the zone should be contingent on Russia’s consent. Indeed, there was an undertone in the debate comments by Rubio and Fiorina that imposing the zone would be an effective way to humiliate Vladimir Putin and make it clear that Russia would not be able to exercise influence in the Middle East.

If that is the nature of no-fly zone proposals, they are extraordinarily reckless. How would we enforce the unilateral no-fly edict?  Would we actually shoot down Russian planes if they dared continue their combat flights?  That would carry the obvious risk that Moscow might respond in kind—and that would bring two nuclear-armed powers to the brink of all-out war. Even if Russia did not directly challenge the United States with aerial combat in Syria, it has other options to retaliate against a U.S. effort to humiliate the Kremlin. Putin could, for example, redouble his military efforts in Ukraine, intensifying that messy conflict. And there is always the chance that he would move militarily against the vulnerable Baltic republics, creating a crisis of credibility for NATO.

There is nothing at stake in Syria that warrants the United States risking such a dangerous confrontation with Russia. Imposing a no-fly zone under the current circumstances is utterly reckless. Anyone who embraces such a scheme should be disqualified automatically from occupying the Oval Office.

August 13, 2015 8:00AM

The Bad and Ugly of the GOP’s Foreign Policy, Part II

The Republican presidential race is heating up and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is talking foreign policy. Alas, he believes intervention and war to be a first resort and seems willing to sacrifice American lives, wealth, and prosperity for almost any reason.

Rubio shares the common delusion on the Right that the world has grown more dangerous since the end of the Cold War. Actually, the end of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact has made it much safer for America.

Rubio claimed that “Turmoil across the world can impact American families almost as much as turmoil across town.” But that is only if the United States allows it. During most of America’s history, Washington avoided involvement in foreign tragedies.

Rubio worried about rising prices from foreign instability. Far more consequential is the expense of military intervention, human and financial.

But Rubio was right when he declared: “foreign policy is domestic policy.” It is difficult to maintain a democratic republic with a limited government committed to individual liberty while pursuing an imperial foreign policy. Americans’ freedom ends up as an afterthought.

In Rubio’s view, America’s ideals “have been replaced by, at best, caution, and at worse, outright willingness to betray those values for the expediency of negotiations with repressive regimes.” That actually sounds like Washington’s persistent support for the dictatorial allies that Rubio cherishes.

He wouldn’t admit any error in invading Iraq “because the president was presented with intelligence that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” Never mind that the supposed evidence variously was manipulated, based on lies, and carefully scrubbed.

But Rubio blamed Barack Obama for the current Iraq imbroglio, criticizing support for Nouri al-Maliki, who became prime minister under George W. Bush. Rubio urged an American return to Iraq: “It’s not nation-building. We are assisting them in building their nation.” That fine distinction might earn a good grade in law school, but it won’t fool the American people.

Rubio also backed the Obama administration’s Libya misadventure. Yet he complained that “Anytime there’s a vacuum created anywhere in the Middle East it becomes a magnet for these sorts of terrorist groups.”

The United States must “reinforce our alliances,” he insisted, particularly in Europe. Never mind that it has more money and people than America yet continues to underfund defense.

Worse, Washington must “reaffirm that the open door policy is still intact and applies to any NATO aspirant, including Ukraine if it so chooses.” But the burden of defending any new member would fall on the United States.

As I point out on Forbes online: “Because Kiev is stuck in conflict America might face an immediate call to fulfill NATO’s Article 5 security commitment—against a nuclear-armed power. Does Rubio want to start World War III?”

Rubio complained that “Most threatening of all, we’ve seen Iran expand its influence.” Actually, Iran is a wreck and poses little danger to the United States. Moreover, the most important impetus for Tehran’s increased clout was Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which Rubio endorsed.

Rubio attempted to add a humanitarian gloss to his disastrous proposals: “Oppressed peoples still turn their eyes toward our shores, wondering if we can hear their cries.” He also argued that “we have a responsibility to support democracy.” Does his heart-warming concern apply to friendly oppressors in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Central Asia?

Yet Rubio also would turn the military into an agent of corporate America through his plan for “the protection of the American economy in a globalized world.” The United States is insulated from much tumult overseas. Shouldn’t other nations take the lead when they are directly affected? How many lives is he prepared to sacrifice to sustain corporate jobs and profits?

Of course, with this agenda there must be more military spending. But America already is stronger than every other nation. If more than 40 percent of the world’s military spending isn’t enough, how much is?

Most of the other GOP candidates sound similar to Rubio. Unfortunately, Republican group-think won’t make the United States more secure. The GOP needs to engage in a real debate over foreign and military policy.

August 11, 2015 12:30PM

The Bad and Ugly of the GOP’s Foreign Policy, Part 1

The GOP’s Cleveland debate was spirited, but shed little light on foreign policy. There are important differences among the participants, but few were exposed.

For instance, elsewhere Donald Trump opined that Crimea was Europe’s problem and asked why Washington still defended South Korea. These sentiments deserved discussion.

No multi-candidate forum can delve deeply into such complex issues, however. Even those Republicans giving formal foreign policy addresses have come up short. The GOP contenders have been largely captured by a reflexive, even rabid interventionism which ignores consequences and experience.

Leading the hawks is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate’s unabashedly pro-war caucus. In the interventionist middle some candidates demonstrate hints of reluctance, such as Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Sen. Rand Paul brings up the rear, uncomfortably gyrating between his father’s views and the GOP conventional wisdom.

Chris Christie delivered a formal foreign policy address in which he easily staked his claim to being most committed to violating Americans’ civil liberties through surveillance of dubious value. He charged that his critics were “ideologues,” yet opposed any restraints on the new, far-reaching presidential powers that he demanded.

His foreign policy views are even worse. At age 52, Christie declared: “I don’t believe that I have ever lived in a time in my life when the world was a more dangerous and scary place.”

This is nonsense. As I pointed out on Forbes online: “Christie barely missed the Cuban missile crisis. During his life the Cold War raged, the Vietnam War was lost, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and China’s Mao Zedong unleashed the bloody Cultural Revolution. People talked about the potential for a ‘nuclear winter’ from a nuclear exchange. Today the U.S. vastly outspends its potential adversaries and is allied with every major industrialized power save China and Russia.”

 “Building stronger alliances” is a “pillar” of Christie’s foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy is based on “partnership with the people and nations who share our values,” he explained. Like the totalitarian Saudis, brutal Egyptian military, and dictatorial Central Asian states?

Moreover, America’s friends can defend themselves. For instance, South Korea has 40 times the GDP of the North; Japan possesses the world’s third largest economy. Europe has a larger GDP and population than America and multiple of those of Russia.

Many so-called allies are security black holes, making America less secure. Why would Washington wish to confront nuclear-armed Moscow over interests the latter considers vital by defending nations such as Georgia and Ukraine, which always have been irrelevant to America’s security?

Christie argued that “We didn’t have to be a global policeman who solved every problem.” But that’s what Washington has done with perpetual social engineering through foreign aid, military intervention, war, and more.

In Christie’s view squandered U.S. credibility is why Russia grabbed Crimea, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used force against his opponents, and “Iranian-backed militias are rampaging across Yemen.”

In fact, Washington never was going to go to war over Crimea with nuclear-armed Russia. Assad was determined to remain in power and therefore had to fight, irrespective of Washington’s view. Yemen’s Houthis have been in revolt for decades and have never had much connection to Iran, let alone America.

Of course, Christie demanded more military outlays. But it would be easier “to keep our edge” if Washington didn’t constantly squander Americans’ resources defending other nations and rebuilding failed states.

Christie insisted that “What happened on 9/11 must never happen again.” But he failed to understand that promiscuously supporting authoritarian regimes, aiding foreign combatants, dropping drones and, most important, bombing, invading, and occupying other lands creates enemies determined to do America ill.

Rubio and Bush also have given formal speeches, but sound no better than Christie. Most GOP candidates promise brave new interventions and wars.

If Republicans really believe in limited government and individual liberty, they should promote peace. It is time for a real Republican debate over foreign and military policy.

August 7, 2015 2:32PM

No, There Isn’t A “Dred Scott Case” of Our Times

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has declared "I am not a libertarian, and I fight very strongly against libertarian influence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement," is also unlikely to win any prizes for temperateness of rhetoric. Last night at the Fox News debate he likened the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on gay marriage to the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, a line he's been using for a while.

Very likely he picked it up from a coterie of social-conservative commentators at places like National Review and First Things who've been using the comparison a lot. Last October I wrote a piece on this curious trope. A few excerpts: 

...Dred Scott v. Sandford was the decision that 1) entrenched slavery and 2) set the nation on a path to Civil War. Slavery and the Civil War having been more horrible than most things happening in America lately, libertarian lawyer/author Timothy Sandefur has proposed that comparisons to Dred Scott should trigger American law’s version of the Internet’s “Godwin’s Law” under which whoever brings in Hitler has lost the argument....

[A National Review commentator claims] that the marriage rulings, like Dred Scott, pose a “comprehensive threat to republican government.”

Note what he’s asserting here. It’s one thing to object to a Supreme Court decision as restricting what laws the democratic process can make. That’s what Supreme Court decisions do, at least when they recognize constitutional rights that curtail government power. (Conservatives, like liberals, have their favorite Court decisions that do this, on topics that include freedom of education, gun liberty, and freedom of campaign speech.) It’s another thing to claim a given decision will make it impossible for republican government itself to function in the future in some sort of “comprehensive” way.

It happens that Dred Scott is one of the very few Supreme Court decisions you could describe without hyperbole as doing this, since in a nation closely divided between slave and free, it entrenched the slave power in a way that tended to paralyze political action in general. In the cataclysm that followed, the survival of republican government indeed was in peril....

The Supreme Court reports are littered with rulings that are poorly reasoned, wrongly decided or both, some of which have had dire consequences for the nation. But for the reasons Sandefur suggests, most sensible commentators refrain from lumping these decisions in with Dred Scott. One is that they hesitate to liken other evils to slavery. The other is that they hesitate to liken other episodes of social division to the American Civil War. None of the candidates on the podium last night believe so strongly in reversing a decision like Obergefell that they would see it as worth putting America through the horrors of civil war. Do they?

August 7, 2015 12:46PM

A Blinkered Foreign Policy Debate

Foreign policy didn’t get a lot of air time in last night’s GOP debate, which often seemed to focus primarily on Donald Trump and the fact that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman. The candidates appeared worryingly ill-prepared to discuss foreign policy issues, with confused and misleading statements, incorrect facts, and a few truly bizarre comments.

There is a lot of great news coverage - see here or here for examples - highlighting these statements, from Jim Gilmore’s call for the U.S. to create a Middle Eastern NATO, to Ted Cruz’s decision to describe the opinions of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as nonsense. At least one candidate conflated Iran with ISIS. The first debate included a baffling discussion of ‘cyberwalls,’ a never-before heard term that seemed to encompass both the Great Firewall of China, and the refusal of private companies like Google to hand over data to the U.S. government.

The bigger problem with the debate, however, was the mass oversimplification of foreign policy. Only one candidate, Carly Fiorina, acknowledged that foreign policy can be complicated, a statement immediately undermined when she noted that some issues are black and white, and promised to tear up the Iran deal on her first day in office. Unfortunately, foreign affairs is actually complex. Take the Middle East, where the United States is involved in conflicts both in opposition to, and in alignment with Iranian proxies. Or our relationship with Russia, which isn’t limited to confrontation in Ukraine, but includes cooperation on the Iranian nuclear deal and Syrian issues. Debates, with their reliance on manufactured soundbites, aren’t the best place to delve into these complexities. But no candidate on the stage gave any indication of a willingness to engage with the complicated nuances of foreign policy.

The debate also lacked regional balance, focusing almost entirely on the Middle East, Iran deal, and ISIS. These issues aren’t unimportant, but other major topics went unaddressed. Russia got limited talk time, while China - arguably America’s most important diplomatic relationship - wasn’t even discussed. Trade issues were glossed over, except Donald Trump’s facile assertions that he’ll help America “win” at trade. America’s relationship with Latin America, our fastest growing trade partner, came up only in the context of illegal immigration.

By failing to address other regional or topical issues, the foreign policy debate focused on the immediate future, and didn’t address long-term strategic concerns. The next president needs to think not only about the issues in today’s headlines, but about how actions taken today will impact foreign affairs in the future. Indeed, one question - which asked candidates their plan to defeat ISIS in ninety days - showed an utter lack of awareness of America’s own recent history. After two decade-long insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the time commitment required to intervene in such conflicts shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. 

The many gaffes and omissions in last night’s GOP debate highlighted how few of the candidates are genuinely prepared to address foreign affairs issues. There are many more primary debates to come, for both the Republican and Democratic Party. Hopefully future debates will feature not only candidates who are better-prepared on foreign policy issues, but also questions which allow them to address more than just the Middle East. 

August 7, 2015 12:40PM

Rubio Was Right on Fed Ed Power Grabbing

In last night’s GOP presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in response to a question about the Common Core national curriculum standards that, sooner or later, the Feds would de facto require their use. If you know your federal education – or just Common Core – history, that’s awfully hard to dispute.

Said Rubio: “The Department of Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied. They will not stop with it being a suggestion. They will turn it into a mandate. In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is: ‘You will not get federal money unless you do things the way we want you to do it.’”

That is absolutely what has happened with federal education policy. It started in the 1960s with a compensatory funding model intended primarily to send money to low-income districts, but over time more and more requirements were attached to the dough as it became increasingly clear the funding was doing little good. Starting in the 1988 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) we saw requirements that schools show some level of improvement for low-income kids, and those demands grew in subsequent reauthorizations to the point where No Child Left Behind (NCLB) said if states wanted some of the money that came from their taxpaying citizens to begin with, they had to have state standards, tests, and make annual progress toward 100 math and reading “proficiency,” to be achieved by 2014.

Predictably, instead of setting high proficiency bars that were tough to get over, states set them low enough, it seemed, for most kids to trip over them. That largely spurred the move to get all states onto “common” standards and tests, which ultimately became the Common Core and connected assessments. True, the Common Core was created by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), but there’s no real question that the federal government was meant to drive adoption.  The NGA and CCSSO called for it in the 2008 report Benchmarking for Success, Core supporters worked with the Obama administration to have the Core de facto required for states to compete for a slice of $4 billion in Race to the Top ducats, and Core adoption was one of only two standards options to get a waiver from NCLB. Oh, and for good measure, the federal government selected and funded the consortia writing Core-aligned tests.

If what has actually happened isn’t enough to convince you of Rubio’s wisdom, what the Obama administration has asked for should be: that annual appropriations of federal education money be tied to adoption of, and performance on, “college- and career-ready” standards, and like under waivers, states could only use either the Core, or standards a state university system certified as acceptable. And really, if the premise is that states won’t hold themselves accountable for performance – and it is – what other entity than the federal government has the power to make them?

Of course, all the political force that has kept state standards and accountability largely toothless would be directed at Washington were the feds to take full control, so the control would be educationally impotent. But effective or not, it is clear that standards-and-testing logic demands federal force.

But isn’t Washington shrinking away from control? Isn’t the national mood strongly inclined to reduce DC’s power under NCLB, as reflected in the House and Senate bills to reauthorize the ESEA?

Thanks to a massive backlash by parents against the federally strong-armed Common Core and accompanying tests, and teacher opposition to tying test scores to evaluations, the current mood is indeed hostile to federal domination. But both ESEA reauthorization bills leave open potentially sizeable back doors for federal control, and when public anger eventually subsides, the more lasting impulse for politicians will be to “do something” when schools perform poorly. And “doing something” usually means more federal control, even if the signs are that it almost certainly won’t work.

Rubio is right to worry.