Syria and the Danger of Elite Consensus

There was near consensus in Washington, D.C. last week in support of the U.S. strike on Syria. Voices from the left supporting Trump’s action include Hillary Clinton, most of America’s European allies, Tom Friedman, and a large number of former Obama officials. On the right, the usual suspects like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham supported the attack, as did most Republican members of Congress, including some like Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell who opposed exactly such an action when President Obama was considering in back in 2013. Even the mainstream media appear to have decided it was time to strike Assad, at least to judge from much of the breathless “journalism” we’ve seen so far.

On first blush one might imagine that this consensus is a good thing, coming as it does during what has otherwise been an incredibly polarized first few months of Trump’s presidency. Finally, you might say, we agree on something. And all this agreement among the people we elect and pay to run U.S. foreign policy might also give you confidence that Trump did the right thing.

That confidence, sadly, would be misplaced. The truth is that the elite consensus on Syria, like Trump’s missile strike, is premature and ultimately dangerous to American national security.

The fundamental danger of elite consensus is that it undermines the marketplace of ideas. A democracy’s primary strength in foreign policy making is the ability to weigh competing policy proposals in the news media. Debate and deliberation reveal the evidence and logic behind competing claims and helps the public and political leaders assess the implications of different courses of action. This process, in theory, helps the United States avoid poor decisions.

Consensus, however, undermines this process by substituting doctrine for debate. Almost by definition, consensus requires little, if any, debate or deliberation. When was the last time elite consensus resulted from a free-flowing and vigorous debate in the United States? The natural outcome of debate is division and disagreement. Consensus emerges only when people already agree so completely on the key assumptions and value judgments involved that the conclusions are preordained and debate is unnecessary.

In the case of Syria, Republican and Democratic elites supported Trump’s missile strike not because they had an extended debate over its wisdom–in fact, there was zero debate before the surprise attack was announced–but because they all relied on the same basic doctrine that strongly endorses the value of military intervention, what Obama recently called the “Washington playbook.” Reliance on doctrine may be sufficient when the topic is how to handle routine issues, but it is clearly not the right approach when it comes to complex policy problems, about which both citizens and political leaders have incomplete information. Though beliefs are useful as general guidelines, they must be married to a careful consideration of the facts of the case at hand in order to produce sound policies. And the best way to assess the connection between beliefs and actions is to debate policy options in the marketplace of ideas.

New Video Shows the Simple Recipe for Poor Nations to Become Rich Nations—in Spite of Bad Advice from International Bureaucracies

The recipe for growth and prosperity isn’t very complicated.

Adam Smith provided a very simple formula back in the 1700s.

For folks who prefer a more quantitative approach, Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to rank nations based on key indices such as rule of law, size of government, regulatory burden, trade openness, and stable money.

One of the heartening lessons from this research is that countries don’t need perfect policy. So long as there is simply “breathing room” for the private sector, growth is possible. Just look at China, for instance, where hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from destitution thanks to a modest bit of economic liberalization.

Indeed, it’s remarkable how good policy (if sustained over several decades) can generate very positive results.

That’s the main message in this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The first part of the video, narrated by Abir Doumit, reviews success stories from around the world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, Estonia, Taiwan, Ireland, South Korea, and Botswana.

Pay particular attention to the charts showing how per-capita economic output has grown over time in these jurisdictions compared to other nations. That’s the real test of what works.

The second part of the video exposes the scandalous actions of international bureaucracies, which are urging higher fiscal burdens in developing nations even though no poor nation has ever become a rich nation with bigger government. Never.

Yet bureaucracies such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are explicitly pushing for higher taxes in poor nations based on the anti-empirical notion that bigger government is a strategy for growth.

I’m not joking.

As Ms. Doumit remarks in the video, these bureaucracies never offer a shred of evidence for this bizarre hypothesis.

And what’s especially frustrating is that the big nations of the western world (i.e., the ones that control the international bureaucracies) all became rich when government was very small.

Wage Effects of Immigration Are Small

Immigration has small long-run relative wage impacts on American workers by education (Figure 1). These estimates are the most popular and widely cited in the immigration debate. They were completed by George Borjas and Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri. Their findings are very close but diverge most appreciably for the wages of dropouts, even though the effect is small and positive for all native-born workers lumped together. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, 9.4 percent of native-born Americans over the age of 25 are dropouts. Thus, over 90 percent of American workers are in education-skill categories where relative wages immigration increased relative wage, according to the most negative finding (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Relative Impact of Immigration on Native Wages by Education

 

Sources: Borjas, p. 120; Ottaviano & Peri, Table 6.

Note: Borjas looks at 1990-2010. Ottaviano and Peri look at 1990-2006.

Borjas and Ottaviano and Peri find that the wages of immigrant workers are most affected by new immigrants (Figure 2). That’s because new immigrants have skills and education levels most similar to previous immigrants, so they compete against each other more than with natives who have very different levels of skill and education. As we point out in Figure 25 of this bulletin, immigrants still support liberalized immigration despite the negative wage effects they experience. There are at least three explanations for this.

The Case for Term Limits: Shock and Surprise When an Incumbent Actually Retires

The Washington Post reports:

Del. David B. Albo … (R-Fairfax) surprised his party by announcing Wednesday that he won’t seek a 12th term [in the Virginia legislature].

Really? After 12 terms in office it’s a surprise when a politician doesn’t run for a 13th term? Or it’s “shocking” when an 80-year-old U.S. senator doesn’t seek to add to her 40 years in Congress?

Maybe it’s time to limit terms. The American Founders believed in rotation in office. They wanted lawmakers to live under the laws they passed—and wanted to draw the Congress from people who have been living under them. And polls show that contemporary Americans agree with them.

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. Yet in almost every election more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected. In fact, the most common reelection rate for House members over the past 30 years is 98 percent. Even when voters are angry, it’s hard to compete with the power of incumbency.

Americans don’t want a permanent ruling class of career politicians. But that’s what the power of incumbency and all the perks that incumbents give themselves are giving us.

We want a citizen legislature and a citizen Congress—a government of, by, and for the people.

To get that, we need term limits. We should limit members to three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. There must be more than one person in San Francisco capable of making laws. And more than one family in Detroit.

Term limits might result in the election of people who don’t want to make legislation a lifelong career.

Some say that term limits would deprive us of the skills of experienced lawmakers. Really? It’s the experienced legislators who gave us a $20 trillion national debt, and the endless war in Iraq (and Yemen and Syria), and a Veterans Affairs system that got no oversight, and massive government spying with no congressional oversight, and the Wall Street bailout.

Politicians go to Washington and they forget what it’s like to live under the laws they pass. As we’ve seen in some recent elections, they may not even keep a home in the district they represent.

When journalists and political insiders are surprised and shocked by the retirement of legislators who have served for decades, it’s time for new blood.

Political scientists say the evidence on the effect of term limits is mixed. But the evidence on the effects of the permanent congressional class is pretty clear.

For more on term limits, see the Cato Handbook for Congress, Ed Crane’s 1995 congressional testimony, or this very thoughtful article by Mark Petracca, “The Poison of Professional Politics.”

DC Child Care Policy: Restrict Supply, Then Subsidize It

Last week, I highlighted how the DC authorities will be “among [the] first in [the] nation to require child-care workers to get college degrees.” Basic economics tells us this will restrict the supply of potential careers, raise prices, and, I fear, over time lead to a demand for more subsidies to “make child care more affordable.”

There was another possibility I did not explore. Today’s Washington Post suggests that subsidizing supply is on the agenda instead:

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has offered a $15 million proposal to address the acute shortage of licensed child-care options for the city’s infants and toddlers, an issue that has gained urgency amid a baby boom. Her 2018 budget includes competitive grants to help high-quality providers expand or open centers and would also make space available for child-care facilities in three city-owned or leased buildings.

A basic principle that policymakers should follow is “first do no harm.” DC has a general affordability and availability problem, which is screaming “restricted supply.” But now the DC authorities are having to subsidize supply in part to overcome the reductions in supply caused by their own policies. Watch for calls for more demand-side support next.

The result? More and more government control over this crucial economic, social, and familial aspect of life.

How To Stop Politicians From Gerrymandering

I’ve got a new piece at the Institute for Humane Studies’ Learn Liberty explaining the basics of how politicians rig district lines to reward friends and punish foes, the entrenchment of an established political class that results, and how it might be combated. Snippet:

In a classic single-party gerrymander, the party in power packs opposition voters densely into as few districts as possible, thus enabling its own voters to lead by a comfortable margin in a maximum of districts. When a legislature is under split party control, the theme is often bipartisan connivance: you protect your incumbents and we’ll protect ours. Third-party and independent voters, as is so common in our system, have no one looking out for their interests….

Geographic information systems (GIS) methods now allow members of the public using inexpensive software to analyze the full data set behind a map. In several states, that has meant members of the public could offer maps of their own or make well-informed critiques of legislators’ proposed maps. In one triumph for citizen data use, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated a map drawn by lawmakers as clearly inferior to a map that had been submitted independently by an Allentown piano teacher.

Separately, I generally agree with what Aaron Blake writes in a new Washington Post piece: with so many other solid reasons to end gerrymandering, there’s no need to over-sell two arguments frequently invoked against it, the polarization thesis and the “GOP-fixed House” thesis.

On the much-noted trend in national politics toward ideological polarization, it seems clear that gerrymandering is but one contributing factor among many. The U.S. Senate, for which districting is not an issue, has followed a path not too far from that of the House, with virtually all Senate Democrats now to the left of virtually all Senate Republicans and stepped-up party-line cohesion on voting. And states with relatively fair districting maps have experienced polarization with the rest. So, yes, reform will probably make a difference at the margins for those who would like there to be more swing or contestable seats, but don’t expect miracles.

And while gerrymandering today on net benefits Republicans (which has not always been the case), it is probable for reasons Blake explains that fair/neutral districting would still have produced a GOP-run House in 2016. An important reason is that Democratic voters are so concentrated in cities.

For some of the many other reasons the cause is worth pursuing no matter which party (if any) you identify with, check out my IHS piece or, for somewhat more detail, my chapter on the subject in the new Eighth Edition of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. I’ve previously written several pieces about my experience dealing with the problem in my own state of Maryland.

Sessions Wants to Escalate the Drug War

Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparently plans to entrust criminal justice “reform” to Steven H. Cook,

a former street cop [turned] … federal prosecutor … [who] saw nothing wrong with … life sentences for drug charges [or] … the huge growth of the prison population. 

This news is not surprising given Sessions’ views on the drug war (“good people don’t smoke marijuana”). But the Sessions/Cook perspective is still depressing:

Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.

The “silver” lining is that Sessions’s position–drug users are bad people–makes the issue as stark as possible: do we, as a society, believe in individual liberty or not? Much opposition to the drug war (e.g., campaigns against mandatory minimums) avoids that question.

Mandatory minimums are misguided, but mainly because drug trafficking and possession should not be crimes in the first place.  

The Drug War will end only when opponents focus on the fundamental issue: drug use is an individual decision, and government has no right to interfere.