Trump Unleashed

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday, President Trump strongly condemned the recent nerve gas attack in Northern Syria: “I think what Assad did is terrible…. a disgrace to humanity,” he declared: “something should happen.” Last night, US forces hit a Syrian airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles launched from destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean. This was something, and it it happened. For a political outsider, Trump’s picked up “politician’s logic” pretty fast.  

I won’t hazard a guess at what Trump’s exercise in Tomahawk humanitarianism means for our ongoing involvement in the Syrian civil war. His own Secretary of State is less than coherent on the subject, alternately announcing that “steps are underway” to remove Assad and that there’s been “no change” in US “policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria.” But the airstrikes are clarifying in one respect: they confirm the worst fears about our 45th president’s hairtrigger temperament and disdain for legal limits on his ability to wage war.

Thus far, the administration has said nothing about the legal authority for the strikes. There’s not much that can be said: they’re plainly illegal. He had neither statutory nor constitutional authority to order them.

Earlier today, Sen. John McCain insisted that the strikes were covered by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Congress passed in 2001. True, the 2001 AUMF, targeting the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, has proven an impressively stretchable statute: in Syria alone it already supposedly covers Al Qaeda affiliates and the ISIS operatives beheading them. But it’s hard to see how it can be stretched far enough to underwrite military action against Assad, who’s at war with both. The legislators who voted for that AUMF in 2001 thought they were authorizing our 43rd president to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban; it’s safe to say none of them imagined they were giving our 45th president the power to take all sides in a future Syrian civil war.

Without statutory cover, all that’s left is an appeal to presidential power under Article II of the Constitution. But that document vests the bulk of the military powers it grants in Congress, with the aim of “clogging, rather than facilitating war,” as George Mason put it. In that framework, the president retains the power to “repel sudden attacks” against the US; but he does not have the power to launch them. Candidate Barack Obama had it right in 2007 when he told reporter Charlie Savage that “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

As president, Obama violated that pledge repeatedly, but his decision not to attack Syria after its use of chemical weapons in 2013 was one of the few occasions where he honored it. While insisting in public that he had all the authority he needed to wage war without Congress, in private, Obama told aides he agreed with the position he’d outlined to Savage in 2007. Still, Obama aide Ben Rhodes told Savage, “it was still a choice, not a necessity, to go to Congress because ‘it’s not like the lawyers couldn’t have come up with a theory.’”

While we’re waiting to see what legal theory Trump’s lawyers come up with, it’s worth worrying about the practical dangers presented by a system that allows the president to wage war at will. 

Paid Leave: Not a Joke

Here’s a joke: a Republican, a Democrat, the director of a left-wing think tank, three AEI scholars, and Ivanka Trump walk into a bar. What do they agree on?

The answer: they want federally mandated paid leave or child care, effective immediately.

You aren’t laughing? Well, you’re in good company–this joke isn’t funny, especially for women. Paid leave and child care policies have been tried in a variety of contexts, and to advocates’ dismay, the consequences are not universally beneficial to women.

As an example, take Chile, which in 2009 mandated employer-provided childcare for working moms. According to recent research, women employed by affected Chilean firms were paid between 9 and 20 percent lower wages than comparable female Chilean workers following policy implementation.

And the impact of women’s labor policies is arguably worse in Spain, which is struggling with the fallout of a 1999 policy that aims to protect women with children against layoffs [1] but in practice harms them: a natural experiment shows that after policy implementation, Spanish employers were less likely to hire childbearing-aged women, less likely to promote child-bearing-aged women, and more likely to lay child-bearing-aged women off.

Although Spain and especially Chile are different in myriad ways that limit extrapolation to a U.S. context, it’s hard to dismiss home-grown evidence. Though the United States doesn’t have a federally-mandated paid leave policy, it did enact a federally mandated unpaid leave policy, Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in 1993. And despite FMLA being an accepted part of the modern legislative fabric, the consequences of the policy are not all stellar. Analysis suggests women hired after the policy are five percent more likely to be employed but eight percent less likely to be promoted.

Though the U.S. hasn’t adopted a paid leave mandate, a few states have. Research on policy outcomes in California show female labor force participation rising after implementation of paid leave (maybe good?) and childbearing-aged female unemployment and unemployment duration rising, too (unambiguously bad). This is probably because the mandate made women universally more expensive in employer’s eyes, whether professional women intend to use benefits or not.

So why don’t the Ivankas of the world seem to care about these negative repercussions, at least as much as the imagined benefits of women’s policies? The most gracious interpretation is that modern advocates are uninformed. It could also be that it is inconvenient information.

And although advocates would like to paint a rosy picture, the reality is that some women, perhaps many, would be collateral damage under a federally mandated policy. For negatively affected women, that’s a lot more tragic than it is funny.


[1] This protection is granted if the worker had previously asked for a work-week reduction due to family responsibilities.

America’s Increasingly Meritocratic Immigration System

Many have started supporting a so-called merit-based immigration system since President Trump mentioned it a few months ago. A merit-based immigration system could mean just about anything but most define it as a system that admits more highly skilled and educated immigrants, as in Canada, and fewer lower-skilled and family-based immigrants as currently enter under America’s immigration system. Despite the lack of any significant legal or regulatory changes, new immigrants are becoming more highly educated immigrants over time even relative to natives.

The share of admitted immigrants who have at least a college education increased from 22 to 39 percent 1993 to 2015 (Figure 1). Over the same period, the share of admitted immigrants who are high school dropouts dropped from 37 percent to 27 percent. Virtually all of that change occurred since 2007 when illegal immigration slowed down and the number of Chinese and Indian immigrants began to grow relative to Mexicans. Although the American system does not select for education, it does not intrinsically favor the uneducated either.  

Figure 1
Share of New Immigrants by Education & Year of Admission

A New Generation On the Court

By a vote of 54-45, the Senate today concluded the long, bruising battle to confirm President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts is scheduled to swear Judge Gorsuch in at 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning. We can now look forward to the Court’s return to its normal practices, taking and deciding cases without the prospect of 4-4 decisions hanging over it.

Judge Gorsuch has often been likened to Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat he will assume, and for good reason, for he too is a textualist and an originalist in his approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation. But he comes from a later generation, one immersed in the debates between liberals, conservatives, and classical liberals over the proper interpretation of the Constitution and the role of judges under it. During his confirmation hearings, for example, Judge Gorsuch spoke favorably of the Court’s decisions in cases like Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, where the Court upheld parental rights not expressly found in the Constitution. That bodes well for his appreciation for the rich moral, political, and legal theory that stands behind and informs the often broad language of the Constitution, as his own graduate study at Oxford in natural law would suggest.

Speaking of generational change, an interesting historical note was just brought to my attention by a personal friend with whom I served in the Reagan administration, Chicago attorney Joseph A. Morris. As a law clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Gorsuch will be the first U.S. Supreme Court justice ever to serve on the bench alongside the justice for whom he clerked. The play between them will be fun to watch! Congratulations Judge, soon to be Justice, Neil Gorsuch.

Congratulations, Justice Gorsuch

Congratulations to Neil Gorsuch, who will be sworn in Monday as the newest Supreme Court justice. Gorsuch’s mentor, Justice Byron White, liked to say that each new justice makes for a new court, and I look forward to the breath of fresh air, intellectual rigor, collegiality, and constitutional seriousness that Justice Gorsuch will bring. I’m also glad that our nation’s political debate can move beyond this toxic episode and that we won’t ever have to discuss nuclear options with regard to judges ever again. 

Donald Trump, Syria, and the Power Problem

With his decision to launch missile strikes against an airfield in Syria, President Donald Trump has apparently learned a lesson that eventually dawns on all American presidents, especially in the post-Cold War era: with great power comes great responsibility. I call it the power problem.

The power problem was encapsulated in the exchange between then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright and Gen. Colin Powell, at the time the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

Relieved of the burdens to justify U.S. military actions solely on the basis of our own national security interests, U.S. presidents and the foreign policy elites who advise them have gone searching for other reasons to use force. There will never be a shortage of aggrieved parties pleading for help. There is, however, a shortage of countries willing to help.

U.S. military power, and our willingness to use it, have discouraged others from possessing power of their own. They can reasonably claim that they lack the capability to act.

The United States doesn’t have that luxury. From the moment when a president arrives in the Oval Office, he possesses vast power, and few constraints on how it is used.

Using it wisely requires tremendous discipline, and a willingness to endure the criticisms of those who will accuse you of everything from callousness to mendacity – both when you act, and when you refuse to do so.

Trump’s repeated invocation of the doctrine “America First” suggested that he would not be swayed by such criticisms. And, in the past, he has suggested that the United States should not become involved in Syria’s civil war. In September 2013, for example, Donald Trump urged President Obama via Twitter not to attack Syria. 

But now, just 77 days into his presidency, he has created an inevitable rejoinder for every successive foreign policy crisis, anywhere in the world: “Mr. President, you struck Syrian government forces in April 2017. Why are you not striking [insert name of petty tyrant here] in response to equally grievous actions against [petty tyrant’s people]?”

In his statement last night justifying the use of unilateral force against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, President Trump explained “It is in this (sic) vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” 

It is a debatable point, and one that deserves to be debated. A new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) would be a good place to start. There are risks, including conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. There are reasonable questions about what effect such strikes will have on Assad’s capacity to carry out similarly brutal killing by purely conventional means. And, lastly, having now introduced a very small increment of U.S. military power directly into the Syria conflict, some will wonder whether that signals a willingness to use much more. Those who castigated Barack Obama for refusing to intervene decisively in the Syrian civil war, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, hope so. The question is whether President Trump, in the face of all this uncertainty, will be able to resist the temptation to escalate.

If he succumbs, Americans could find themselves sucked into yet another elective military quagmire in the Middle East.

U.S.-China Trade Deal Trumps U.S.-China Trade War

Amid increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing over economic and security matters, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Florida today and tomorrow for meetings with President Trump.  Although economic frictions between the world’s two largest economies are nothing new, the safeguards that have helped prevent those frictions from sparking an explosion and plunging the relationship into the protectionist abyss may no longer be reliable.

As I noted in this recent Cato Free Trade Bulletin: 

Never have the U.S. and Chinese economies been more interdependent than they are today. Never has the value of the bilateral trade and investment relationship been greater. Never has the precarious state of the global economy required comity between the United States and China more than it does now. Yet, with Donald J. Trump ascending to power on a platform of nationalism and protectionism, never have the stars been so perfectly aligned for the relationship to descend into a devastating trade war.

What are those safeguards and why might they no longer be reliable?

First, U.S. multinational business interests that used to favor treading lightly with China, and provided a policy counterweight to U.S. import-competing industries advocating protectionism, have grown disillusioned by the persistence of policies that continue to impede their success in Chinese markets. Many think a more aggressive posture from Washington, even if that makes matters worse for them in the short run, is overdue.

Second, the pro-China-trade lobbies in Washington have grown sheepish in their advocacy on account of an economic study that went viral last year, ascribing massive U.S. jobs losses to trade with China, and because many fear political retribution from challenging Trump’s assumptions.  Full-throated support for the relationship has become conditional support.

Third, now more than ever before, U.S. policymakers, media, and the public are less inclined to look at the bilateral economic relationship in isolation from the strategic and geopolitical aspects of the relationship.  Segregating the issues in the past allowed us to focus on the win-win elements of trade, where there was broad enough agreement that mutual benefits could be derived, without being distracted by the issues where the United States and China are less likely to agree.  Today, our economic frictions are viewed through the prism of our geopolitical differences – and that makes trade disputes more difficult to manage.

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