September 16, 2019 3:43PM

Deportation Rates in Historical Perspective

In last week’s Democratic primary debate, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos asked Joe Biden about President Obama’s record on immigration enforcement. Ramos said, “you served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history.”

Democratic partisans were very upset on twitter, but the numbers don’t lie. President Obama removed more people from the United States, no matter how you dice the numbers than any other president. But was President Obama's removal recordan anomaly? To answer that question, I looked at the number of removals per president going back to 1892 when the government first started recording them. Table 1 shows the presidents, the number of removals under each administration, and the number of removals per year. The latter number is important as it controls for the number of years in office.

From 1892-2018, Democratic presidents were in power for 60 years and removed about 4.6 million people for an average of 76,635 per year. During the same time, Republican Presidents were in power for 67 years and removed about 3.7 million people for an annual average of 54,670. Presidents usually inherit the immigration enforcement policies of their predecessors for at least a year. I adjusted for that by assigning the number of removals in the first year of any administration to the previous administration and the results were almost identical.

But the political parties changed quite a bit over the 1892-2018 period. Shortening the period to 1990-2018 produces a similar result. During that time, Democratic presidents were in power for 55 percent of the time and removed 60 percent of all those removed or over 3.9 million. Republican presidents were in power for 45 percent of the time and removed 40 percent of all those removed or about 2.7 million. From 1990-2018, Democratic president removed an average of 246,006 people per year in power and Republican presidents removed 205,453 people per year in power.

Removals as a percentage of the illegal immigrant population have varied considerably over the 1990-2018 period (Figure 1). Estimates for the number of illegal immigrants come from the Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Migration Studies, and linear interpolation for missing years except for 2018 where I assume that the number of illegal immigrants is the same as estimated by the Center for Migration Studies.

George Bush removed an average of 0.91 percent of the estimated illegal immigrant population each year, Bill Clinton removed an average of 1.86 percent per year, George W. Bush removed an average of 2.42 percent per year, Barack Obama removed an average of 3.33 percent per year, and Donald Trump has removed an average of 2.59 percent per year through 2018. President Trump can still increase the pace of deportations, but he won’t overcome President Obama’s record.

One problem with the removal statistics above is that they changed in the mid-2000s to include some illegal immigrants apprehended at the border rather than just removals from the interior of the United States. It would be better if we had the number of removals from only the interior of the United States and then recalculated the numbers for Figure 1. Even adjusting for that for the years that we have interior removals still shows that President Obama broke removal records.

September 16, 2019 1:06PM

Striking Iran In Response to Abqaiq Attack Would Be a Mistake

The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from the attack on Saudi Aramco’s facility, but U.S. officials were quick to pin blame on Iran, with some even going so far as to suggest that military strikes could be – and should be – in the offing.

Such a move should upset constitutional purists; Congress hasn’t authorized military action against Iran for these purposes. The case that the Trump administration might present to Congress in an attempt to build support for strikes is unlikely to be compelling. Indeed, the story of the attack and what U.S. military strikes in retaliation would achieve is a lot more complicated than the war hawks would have you believe.

First, everyone should keep the likely economic impact in perspective. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that production losses from the shutdown at the Abqaiq facility would amount to “about 5.7 million barrels a day,” or “roughly 5% of the world’s daily production of crude oil.” But such supply shocks are rarely long-lasting, and facilities like the one at Abqaiq are often quickly repaired. Saudi Aramco is no different from any other company in that it wants to increase production as quickly as possible, and so is highly motivated to make speedy repairs. (Boston University’s Josh Shifrinson makes a related point here.)

Second, the energy market in general is far more resilient than people give it credit for. In addition to the strategic petroleum reserve, which President Trump has hinted he might tap, other energy producers will want to replace the lost Saudi supplies. If President Trump were truly concerned about the possible impact on gasoline prices for consumers, he might also reconsider his decision to try to keep Iranian oil off the market.

That is unlikely, however, because too many in his administration –and the DC policy community, generally – seem genuinely excited to use this latest incident as a justification for a widening of the conflict with Iran.

Last week, for example, before the attack, the State Department’s Brian Hook suggested that Iran is primarily responsible for fueling the war in Yemen, and claimed that greater U.S. involvement in the conflict was essential to preserving American security. The facts suggest otherwise.

Mr. Hook and others exaggerate the extent to which Iran controls the Houthis. The latter are a distinct group largely driven by narrow, local goalsnot a proxy group doing Iran's regional bidding. They don't take orders from Tehran. Aiding the Houthis hasn't brought Iran greater regional control. What it has done is frustrate the Saudi coalition's objectives, sticking them in a quagmire that has earned them much of the world's ire.

While some in Congress want Americans to become even more deeply embroiled in the Saudi-Iran dispute, we might instead take this occasion to reconsider our reflexive support for the House of Saud. The United States is, after all, already heavily involved in the proxy war that the two countries are waging in Yemen, mostly through intelligence sharing and arms sales. A report earlier this year concluded that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “used the US-manufactured weapons as a form of currency to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes” in Yemen, including some who are affiliated with Al Qaeda. Other arms reportedly flowed to Iranian-backed militias. The Senate voted in June to block further sales, with seven Republicans joining the Democrats to rebuke the White House. This rare case of bipartisanship is unsurprising given that numerous polls show that the American people are anxious to avoid getting sucked into yet more conflicts in the region. Americans also strongly disapprove of continued U.S. support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most illiberal and repressive regimes on the planet.

Congress should seriously consider the implications of military action in response to the attack on Abqaiq. Military strikes against Iran would only exacerbate tensions and increase the likelihood of a larger military conflict. The Trump administration’s bid to embroil the United States even more deeply in a brutal civil war undermines Americans' security and erodes American values.

September 16, 2019 11:41AM

Today’s Hyper‐​Partisanship Would Have Torpedoed Nixon’s China Initiative

My new article in the September-October issue of the American Conservative ponders whether President Richard Nixon could have pursued his diplomatic initiative to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) if today’s extreme partisanship in foreign policy had existed then. The shrill partisan criticism directed against President Trump’s attempt to establish a less confrontational relationship with North Korea suggests that that the answer is “no.”

Nixon’s 1972 trip to China marked the abandonment of the U.S. campaign to isolate and demonize the PRC. His conciliatory effort did generate some domestic controversy, but most members of Congress were reasonably supportive. The New York Times noted that Nixon was winning the “broad approval of Congress” for his new China policy. Perhaps most crucial, the support was firmly bipartisan. The majority of the major news outlets also generally praised the president’s initiative.

Raw partisanship was little in evidence. Indeed, most of the criticism that did emerge came from conservative Republicans who complained that the embryonic rapprochement undercut America’s longtime ally, Taiwan. Leading congressional Democrats, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, praised the president for easing tensions with China. Liberal columnist James Reston stated that it was Nixon’s finest hour.

Trump’s experience has been strikingly different. His critics, mostly congressional Democrats and their media allies, along with a small contingent of neoconservative hawks, launched a barrage of criticism about his outreach to Kim Jong-un from the onset. Some of them denounced the president’s willingness even to meet with the North Korean leader, contending that according Kim such an honor implicitly “legitimized” his brutal dictatorship. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin epitomized that view, fuming: “The spectacle of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un on equal footing with the president of the United States . . . was enough to turn democracy lovers’ stomachs.” President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” intoned House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) later exuded outrage in a tweet that Trump insisted on continuing a dialogue with such a monstrous leader. “Kim Jong Un is a homicidal tyrant who deliberately starves his people and murders those who displease him. This is who he is and who he has always been. It’s simply heartbreaking to know tonight that his biggest global cheerleader is the President of the United States of America.”

Yet Nixon initiated a dialogue with Mao Zedong, one of the worst mass murderers in human history, without much criticism from prominent Democrats. They understood that effective diplomacy often requires interaction with deplorable regimes and individuals to reduce tensions and the potential catastrophe of war.

If done purely for cheap partisan advantage, objecting to Trump’s pursuit of a rapprochement with North Korea is irresponsible. If, on the other hand, his opponents are sincere, they are being disturbingly naïve. Indeed, earlier critics would have had a better case to accuse Nixon of “appeasement” and conferring “legitimacy” on a totalitarian regime. Nixon was not only willing to open a dialogue with Mao and Zhou Enlai, he traveled to China to start the process. The latter feature gave the PRC a major prestige coup. Conversely, Trump insisted on holding the first two summits in neutral locations and the third at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

If myopic partisan critics had strangled Nixon’s China policy in its cradle, America’s relationship with Beijing today likely would be more dangerous—perhaps far more dangerous--for all concerned. President Trump’s difficult North Korea initiative deserves similar support and encouragement instead of ridicule and knee-jerk hostility. Prominent Democrats in the 1970s behaved in a responsible, constructive manner, despite having to back a political adversary. So, too, did most liberal media outlets. The petty conduct of their successors in response to Trump’s outreach to North Korea stands in depressing contrast to such statesmanship.

September 13, 2019 4:13PM

Minding Money by Migrating

Americans are moving from higher-tax states to lower-tax states. Of the 25 highest-tax states, 24 had net out-migration in 2016. Of the 25 lowest-tax states, 17 had net in-migration, as I discuss in this study

State-local taxes are 14.7 percent of personal income in the largest outflow state, New York, but they are just 7.5 percent in the largest inflow state, Florida. Florida’s government costs half as much as New York’s and the services are probably just as good. Florida is warm and sunny, so why not move?

Bloomberg reported yesterday:

Billionaire Carl Icahn is planning to move his home and business to Florida to avoid New York’s higher taxes. … The move is scheduled for March 31 and employees who don’t do so won’t have a job.

… Hedge fund billionaires have relocated to Florida for tax reasons for years—David Tepper, Paul Tudor Jones and Eddie Lampert being among the most prominent. But Florida officials have been aggressively pushing Miami as a destination for money managers since the Republican-led tax overhaul.

The Republican overhaul in 2017 likely accelerated interstate migration because it increased the relative tax pain of living in high-tax states.

We don’t yet have hard data on the migration impact, but there is a stream of articles with anecdotal evidence. The Wall Street Journal reported this week:

. . . Financial planners say that as high-net-worth taxpayers finalize their 2018 returns to meet the October tax-extension deadline, they expect many residents of New York, New Jersey, California and other relatively high-tax states will decide to spend more time in Florida, Texas, Nevada or other states that don’t collect income taxes, or move there outright.

“People are just starting to see the effect,” says Daniel Bernard, an attorney with Twomey Latham in Riverhead, N.Y. “Over the coming months we’re going to see a lot more people looking to establish Florida residency.”

Ed Wollman, a founding partner who handles taxes and estates with Wollman, Gehrke & Associates in Naples, Fla., says a New York City snowbird couple with taxable income of $500,000 would pay about $50,000 in state and city income taxes. A couple with the same taxable income in Illinois would escape a tax bill of close to $25,000 by moving to a no-income-tax state, he says. In New Jersey, the savings would be nearly $32,000, in California more than $46,000 and in Connecticut more than $32,000.

… In Texas, estate attorney Virginia Hammerle of the Hammerle Finley Law Firm in Lewisville reports an influx of snowbird clients wanting to move their tax residences from California and the East Coast. “This has become a very hot topic,” Ms. Hammerle says. “I’ve had clients who tell me they realize savings of $50,000 to $100,000 annually.”

Map of migration between states in the U.S.

September 13, 2019 4:08PM

The IRAA and SLAA: Moving Beyond Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Address Mass Incarceration

Prison Bars

“Mass incarceration” has become the term to describe the millions of people held in jails and prisons throughout the United States. The oft-cited statistic that Americans make up roughly 5 percent of the world’s population but hold 25 percent of the global prisoners remains true. Part of the reason for this is that the United States incarcerates individuals for much longer sentences than most of the rest of the world. And while nonviolent drug offenders serving decades-long draconian sentences have gotten the most attention in legislation, presidential debates, and executive commutations, the data show that most people who are serving time in prison are in for violent offenses. Now, what “violent” means varies by jurisdiction—illegal possession of firearms, being a driver of a getaway car, and burglaries against vacant properties can nevertheless be considered violent in some states—but meaningfully reducing our incarcerated population will unquestionably require releasing people who have been convicted of serious violent crimes.

If you just flinched a bit, bear with me.

Most people who are sentenced to prison are going to be released at some point. They will at some point be expected—indeed, obligated—to rejoin society. So, for most inmates, the issue of release is a question of “when” not “if.” It follows, then, that if we want to reduce the prison population, we may be able to use early release as a mechanism for doing so while preserving the ideals of justice.

A recent law implemented in the District of Columbia provides a good example of how to move toward decarceration productively. In 2016, the D.C. City Council passed the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act, including a component known as the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA). The IRAA allowed D.C. Superior Court judges to revisit sentences imposed on people who were convicted of violent crimes when they were juveniles.

We know adolescents—particularly adolescent males—are in the prime age cohort for making bad decisions without full comprehension of the consequences. This applies to small decisions and big ones, and under bad conditions—poverty, trauma, intoxication, and access to weapons, to name a few—the worst decisions can become devastating for themselves and others. None of these factors excuse a person’s actions, but when added to their youth, they help explain such terrible decisionmaking. Indeed, there is science to back this up. As Mark Joseph Stern explained in Slate:

Scientists now know that the part of the brain that inhibits impulse and risky behavior does not fully develop until age 25. The Supreme Court has noted this fact in prohibiting the execution of juvenile offenders and curtailing juvenile sentences of life without parole. It has explained that “parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence”—that is, the early 20s. Young individuals are therefore “less culpable” due to their “immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity”; “less likely” to be deterred by “possible punishment”; and more likely to have “potential for rehabilitation.”

Building on this science, local lawmakers want to expand IRAA to cover individuals who were under the age of 25 when they committed the crime for which they were convicted. This new law is known as the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019 (SLAA). Although SLAA has already drawn criticism and hyperbole from the police chief and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, there’s good reason to believe that this law will serve the best interests of D.C. and the eligible offenders.

To understand how SLAA would work, we can look to what has already happened with the IRAA. The IRAA allowed judges to revisit juvenile offenders many years after their crimes and convictions to determine whether they’ve matured and become better people while incarcerated. As amended in 2019, inmates that have served at least 15 years of their sentence but are not yet eligible for parole may apply for early release. Release is by no means automatic. The inmate’s application is thoroughly reviewed by a D.C. Superior Court judge, and other stakeholders involved with the offenders’ cases—including victims, community members, and the surviving families—may be consulted before a determination is made. Contrary to some claims, the law specifically provides for judges to consider the nature of the offense when determining whether to grant release.

Since the IRAA has been passed, 18 inmates have been released under supervised probation because of the program. According to local defense attorney James Ziegler, several of them have become violence interrupters and neighborhood advocates to prevent more young people from going down the paths they took to prison. Zeigler also notes that none of the offenders released has recidivated—that is, been sent back to prison for a new crime.

At this point, it might be helpful to think about what exactly society wants its criminal justice system to accomplish after a crime has been committed. Most people agree on several core functions that are essential to a decent criminal system, although how important each function is weighed will vary from person to person. These functions include, but may not be exclusive to: accountability for wrongdoing, punishment for wrongdoing, rehabilitation for wrongdoers, and keeping dangerous wrongdoers off the streets through incapacitation. Putting aside efforts to decriminalize behavior that libertarians and others don’t find blameworthy in the first place, criminal justice reform should be considered with these four systemic objectives in mind.

IRAA and SLAA can be evaluated thus:

  • Accountability—This is the easiest one. The offenders have already been found guilty of their crimes so we know they have received society’s condemnation by means of a criminal conviction.
  • Punishment—To be eligible for relief under IRAA—and the SLAA, if passed into law—each offender must serve at least 15 years of his sentence. In the abstract, people tend to think of years in prison as less severe than they are. If you’ve ever heard or thought, “He only got five years for that?” you’ve probably been guilty of this. As laypeople and potential victims, we think of how angry we are about a particular crime, and then tack on a number—almost at random—to that offense. Legislators are no different, and sometimes they’re worse.

    But fifteen years is a very long time for a human being to spend living in a cage. The offender’s friends and loved ones have gone about their lives without them; the world has changed dramatically during that time; and the incarcerated person has missed technological innovations and cultural changes, but also graduations, weddings, births, funerals, and other social functions that help bring joy and comfort to our lives. Moreover, the personal changes between adolescence to adulthood are considerable for most individuals. One not need be a neuroscientist or sociologist to understand that most people behave differently in middle age than they do in middle or late adolescence. Whether or not an offender has been punished “enough” will vary, but no one can honestly say that 15 years in prison is a slap on the wrist.

    So how long is the right amount of time? Considering the other functions of criminal justice, of which punishment is only one prong, it makes sense for the system to contemplate what society gains or loses if an offender spends unnecessary years in prison rather than returning as a productive member of society. Put in economic terms: society may get decreasing marginal utility from keeping a sufficiently punished, working-age inmate in prison rather than allowing him back into society.

  • Rehabilitation—Closely related to whether a person has been punished enough is whether they have been rehabilitated. That is, whether or not the personal failures that led to the criminal behavior in the first place have been addressed by the inmate. This will invariably involve judgment calls—including an assessment whether the person will likely reoffend and return to prison—but people change over time. Under the IRAA and SLAA, there will be at least 15 years of prison records to indicate whether they have been a “model prisoner” or otherwise shown marked improvement over time.

    Recall, though, the IRAA and SLAA also allows the judge to determine individual cases after talking with stakeholders—including victims—to determine whether the person should be released. While not everyone may be happy with a judge’s determination, IRAA and SLAA contain a built-in mechanism for a judge to determine whether an inmate will be likely to make better decisions when he is released than he did before he went in.

  • Incapacitation—Clearly, a minimum of 15 years in prison has achieved the result of incapacitating the individual for that amount of time. But part of the IRAA and SLAA processes aim to determine whether more time is required to keep the public safe. While there is no evidence that long prison sentences deter crime by fear of their severity, there is evidence that people typically “age out” of crime because older people are less likely to engage in behaviors that lead to prison sentences. This is not universal—hence the need for thorough individual evaluations—but it follows that the impulses and peer effects that can lead young men to violence are less prevalent later in life. Those who have been released to date have posed no danger to the community and, in fact, may be making it a safer place to live.

Because most inmates are going to be released back into society at some point, it makes sense to revisit the cases of people who have quite literally grown up in prison. If implemented properly, the IRAA and SLAA can reduce incarceration while satisfying the core goals of criminal justice.

September 12, 2019 2:30PM

Statewide California Rent Control: Shooting The Price Messenger

California has approved a statewide annual rent increase cap of 5 percent plus inflation for rentable accommodation in buildings more than 15 years old. Though technically an “anti-gouging” measure (it expires after 10 years), most would recognize this price cap for what it is: rent control.

Economists should be baffled about rent control’s recent revival. Controlling rental prices is one of those rare policies that practitioners of the dismal science overwhelmingly oppose. It’s even more troubling that it has been introduced in California. Recent academic evidence suggests that a 1994 San Francisco ballot initiative to introduce rent control for small multifamily housing built before 1980 actually led to:

  • rent-controlled buildings being almost 10% more likely to convert to a condo or a Tenancy in Common (TIC) than buildings in a control group.
  • a 15% decline in the number of renters living in these buildings and a 25% reduction in the number of renters living in rent-controlled units, as landlords converted existing accommodation to other uses and demolished old buildings and replaced them with new units outside the controls 
  • a city-wide rent price increase of 5.1%.

Rent control then had exactly the effects economists would predict. Capping a market price below its equilibrium creates shortages. Many landlords remove rentable accommodation from the market to more profitable uses, or else rebuild accommodation (that is often more expensive) to avoid the charges. The twin effects? Higher market rents and accelerated gentrification, to the detriment of poorer residents.

Now, the urge for policymakers to “do something” on California’s housing problem is understandable. Demographia’s median multiple calculations (median house price in a market, divided by median household income) shows that California contains 15 of the US’s 28 “severely unaffordable” housing markets – defined as those where the median multiple exceeds 5.1. In Los Angeles, San Jose and Santa Cruz that multiple actually exceeds 9! Homelessness is rife in some of California’s largest cities. The state has the highest poverty rate in the country. These problems are all exacerbated by high housing service costs.

But rent control worsens, rather than dealing with, these problems. High and rising rental costs suggest that supply is relatively unresponsive to demand, often due to overly restrictive land use planning and zoning laws. High or rising prices and rents are therefore like a messenger, urging developers to build more houses or apartment buildings.

What rent control amounts to is an attempt to muffle that message and pretend there is no problem. But in capping rents when markets are heating, you reduce the profitability for landlords to rent the accommodation in the first place, worsening the supply problem that’s pushed up rental costs to begin with.

Indeed, as I said when Oregon introduced similar legislation, this new California measure will ultimately please very few people. In areas where tenants face rent increases above earnings but below the cap, rent controls will have no effect. Increases will eat into families’ incomes further, and with affordability worsening, tenant groups are likely, in time, to demand tighter controls.

Yet where market rents really are spiraling, capping them to prevent so-called “economic eviction” (as this measure does) dampens the incentive for developers to bring new supply to market - even more so if they see these measures as a precursor to even tighter controls. 

Some tenants, usually the less mobile and those opting not to move, will benefit from lower rents, of course. But the cost is a significantly worsened availability of rentable housing precisely where it is needed most.

The California legislators think they get around this supply-reducing effect by only applying the controls to properties more than 15 years old. But as the San Francisco evidence shows, there’s nothing to stop landlords changing the use of existing properties, or else knocking down older buildings or houses, to then provide new exempted forms of accommodation.

On housing there really is no substitute to liberalizing supply. California lawmakers should stop shooting the rent price messenger, and deliver the more difficult zoning and planning reforms to improve housing affordability more broadly.

September 12, 2019 1:22PM

Federal Spending Tops $5 Trillion

The Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget both project that federal government spending will be about $4.6 trillion in fiscal year 2020.

In fact, federal spending in 2020 will be about $5.2 trillion. Reporters and budget wonks (including me) nearly always use the lower CBO and OMB numbers when discussing total federal spending, but they are the wrong numbers.

The $4.6 trillion figure is “net” outlays, but actual total spending is “gross” outlays at $5.2 trillion. The difference is “offsetting collections” and “offsetting receipts.” These revenues to the government are netted against spending at either the program level, agency level, or government-wide level. Some examples are Medicare premiums, national park fees, and royalties earned on mineral deposits. There are hundreds of cash inflows to the government that are deducted from spending before reaching the widely reported net figure.

The details on offsets are buried in chapter 15 of OMB’s Analytical Perspectives, which was released in March. OMB expected 2020 gross spending to be about 12 percent larger than net spending and offsets from the public to be about $560 billion. Thus, gross federal spending will be about $5.2 trillion.

Net outlays in 2020 will be about 21.0 percent of gross domestic product, while gross outlays will be about 23.5 percent. The latter is a better measure of the share of the economy controlled by federal legislators through spending programs.

Politically, reducing federal spending reported to the public with a half trillion in offsets is a sneaky way for Washington to hide some its massive footprint. To increase transparency, CBO and OMB should highlight gross outlays in their main budget tables and charts where the figures would be more visible to reporters and the public.