What Is Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine?

At noon on January 20th, Barack Obama stepped aside, leaving Donald Trump as the leader of the free world. In his inaugural address, Trump pledged to implement an ‘America First’ doctrine. But while the implications for trade and immigration are relatively clear, his speech brought us little closer to understanding what this will mean for foreign policy.

Indeed, thanks to the incoherence of the president-elect’s foreign policy remarks during his campaign, the range of potential outcomes is wide. But Trump’s past comments suggest four potential paths that his ‘America First’ Doctrine could take.

The first option is true isolationism. Though it remained unclear throughout the campaign the extent to which Trump truly understood the historical baggage that came with the term ‘America First,’ many commentators assumed that he would indeed pursue a classic isolationist policy. And Trump seems to mean it literally in some cases: only a week into office, he has already sought to erect trade and immigration barriers. He may also seek to withdraw from the world in military terms, abandoning alliances, and refusing to engage in even the diplomatic resolution of international problems which don’t directly concern the United States.

Yet elements of Trump’s own statements call this assumption into question. From his insistence on increased military spending to his promise in the inaugural address to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism ‘completely from the face of the Earth,’ Trump has repeatedly implied that he is likely to pursue a relatively hawkish foreign policy.

Sizing Up Trump’s Excellent Short List

People have been asking me about the final few people President Trump seems to be considering for Supreme Court nomination. I know them and especially their work to varying degrees and am confident that they’re each worthy of elevation. Here’s a summary of their judicial profile.

Neil Gorsuch is probably the most like Scalia. He has a well thought out conception of constitutional interpretation and the way that structure protects liberty. He’s most known for his opinions supporting religious liberty and pushing back on the administrative state. In a Trumpian world, his biggest weakness is that he went to Harvard Law. He was confirmed unanimously to the Tenth Circuit and should not face significant opposition.

Thomas Hardiman is a judge’s judge. He decides the issues before him generally in a way that should be pleasing to conservative legal elites and does not go beyond the four corners of the case. He brings no ideological agenda to his tasks and so may be less like Scalia in that respect—and also he’s probably more deferential to law enforcement that Scalia was. He also was confirmed unanimously and should face no significant opposition except that some activists will glom on to his strong defense of the right to keep and bear arms.

William Pryor is a courageous and forthright judge. He would generate the most controversy because of his extra-judicial writings and speeches, most notably in stern opposition to Roe v. Wade. He has been attacked from both the left and the right (unjustly in my view) and his previous confirmation was itself not without controversy. He is best known for his writings on religious liberty and the proper judicial role.

It would be impolitic of me to name my preference, but let’s just say that the American people would be served well by any of them (or the others who’ve been mentioned).

Heritage Forum: Trump and Infrastructure

On Friday, the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel of experts to discuss prospects for infrastructure policy during the Trump administration. You can watch the event on C-SPAN.

I discussed why infrastructure activities should be devolved to the states and private sector, and why the Trump plan to subsidize equity investments in infrastructure is not a good approach.

There were numerous points of agreement on the panel, which included Michael Sargent of Heritage, Robert Puentes of the Eno Center, and Marc Scribner of CEI. We all favored greater private investment in traditionally public infrastructure, and we all agreed that the Trump administration should put a high priority on air traffic control reform this year.

I make the case for privatizing air traffic control in a new op-ed in The Hill.

Trump Looking to Local Police for Immigration Enforcement

Last Friday, President Trump issued a misguided executive order affecting migration from seven majority-Muslim countries. In December 2015 Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” until (as his fans never tire of pointing out) elected officials “can figure out what is going on.” News from last week confirms that Trump’s rhetoric related to Muslims was not just campaign bombast; it was a serious policy proposal. Another immigration proposal touted during the campaign was also codified into policy by executive order last week, with Trump directing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand an interior immigration enforcement program that will grow the federal government’s role in state and local law policing while harming police departments’ relationships with the communities they are tasked to serve. 

Under §287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, local and state police departments can enter into agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enforce federal immigration laws. Thirty-four law enforcement agencies in 16 states are now taking part in the 287(g) program. Up until 2013 this program included “task force” agreements, which allowed participating officers to arrest suspected immigration law violators in the field, and “jail enforcement” agreements. Under “jail enforcement” agreements officers at state and local correctional facilities can seek to identify aliens via interviews and checking their biographic details against DHS databases.

Currently, only jail enforcement agreements are in place. The Obama administration abandoned the “task force” agreements at the end of 2012 amid worries about their negative effect on police-community relationships and accusations of racial profiling.

Trump said that he would “expand and revitalize” 287(g) during a speech last August. An executive order signed last week makes it clear that the Trump administration is serious about such a revitalization and expansion, including a reinstatement of “task force” agreements.

Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

First Doubts about Border Adjustability

President Trump created a stir by dismissing as “too complicated” the border adjustability feature in the House Republican corporate tax reform. Yet a few days later his press secretary Sean Spicer suggested the seemingly rejected border tax could pay for a Mexican border wall.   

Meanwhile, the President suggested the dollar is “too strong” even though (1) Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross boasted about Trump having talking the Mexico peso down 35% and (2) Martin Feldstein and other economists pushing border adjustability predict that the plan would push the dollar 25% higher. 

To call border adjustability too complicated is starting to look like a huge understatement. 

In the House Republicans’ tentative “Better Way” plan, border adjustment means corporations could no longer treat expenses of imported materials, parts, or equipment as a cost doing business. Manufacturers of electrical machinery or plumbing parts could not deduct the cost of copper (36% of which is imported).  Retailers could not deduct the cost of imported goods. Refiners would pay a 20% tax on crude oil from Canada.

Exports, by contrast, would not count as income for U.S. tax purposes. Big exporters might even qualify for a federal check. “Any border adjustment should include cash refunds for exporters,” writes economist Alan Viard.   

This “border adjustability” is said to be comparable to the way we exempt foreigners from our sales and excise taxes and other countries likewise exempt us from their equivalent value added taxes (VAT). But that analogy depends on treating a tax on corporate cash flow (essentially income minus expensed investments) as equivalent to a tax on sales. I plan to discuss the VAT analogy in a separate blog.

Tax Policy Center economist Bill Gale notes, “Many economists—but very few non-economists—believe that the international trade effects of border adjustments will be small.” Indeed, the architects of the House GOP plan, as well as potential winners and losers among business leaders, depict the House GOP tax proposal as an export incentive and import penalty. So does economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth who writes, “Border adjustability taxes are essentially tariffs under another name.” Carolyn Freund of the Peterson Institute likewise shows how a “Maryland-produced sweatshirt will face a lower tax rate than the Chinese-produced sweatshirt, exactly as if a tariff were applied.” Foreign trading partners will surely see it the same way.  

How can economists disagree? “In a simple textbook model,” explains Alan Viard, “a border adjustment would trigger a real increase in the value of the dollar that would raise the cost of U.S. exports and reduce the cost of U.S. imports by an amount that would exactly offset the direct effects of the border adjustment.”

This textbook model claims the so-called “destination-based cash-flow tax (DBCFT)” will not affect the U.S. trade deficit because, as Paul Krugman explains,  “wages and/or the exchange rate would change.” Rather than dealing with changing wages, border adjustment enthusiasts claim the real exchange rate of the dollar would supposedly rise “exactly” enough to make U.S. exports sufficiently expensive to foreigners to “exactly” offset the export subsidy. And the dollar prices of foreign imports would likewise fall by “exactly” the right amount to compensate for the importers’ extra 20% tax, neither more nor less.  

“If the dollar doesn’t rise quickly enough or high enough,” notes The Wall Street Journal, “a border-adjusted tax is expected to penalize big retailers and other large corporations reliant on lower-cost foreign production.” Even if we could be certain of the real exchange rate rising by 25%, past experience does not suggest that is likely to happen in fewer than four years, or that import prices would fall proportionately or uniformly.

You Ought to Have a Look: On Fixing Science

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

This week we focus on an in-depth article in Slate authored by Sam Apple that profiles John Arnold, “one of the least known billionaires in the U.S.” Turns out Mr. Arnold is very interested in “fixing” science. His foundation, the Arnold Foundation, has provided a good deal of funding to various research efforts across the country and across disciplines aimed at investigating how the scientific incentive structure results in biased (aka “bad”) science. His foundation has supported several high-profile science-finding replication efforts, such as those being run by Stanford’s John Ioannidis (whose work we are very fond of) and University of Virginia’s Brian Nosek who runs a venture called the “Reproducibility Project” (and who pioneered the badge system of rewards for open science that we previously discussed). The Arnold Foundation has also provided support for the re-examining of nutritional science, an effort lead by Gary Taubes (also a favorite of ours), as well as investigations into the scientific review process behind the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, spearheaded by journalist Nina Teicholz.

Apple writes that:

In my conversations with Arnold and his grantees, the word incentives seems to come up more than any other. The problem, they claim, isn’t that scientists don’t want to do the right thing. On the contrary, Arnold says he believes that most researchers go into their work with the best of intentions, only to be led astray by a system that rewards the wrong behaviors.

This is something that we, too, repeatedly highlight at the Center for the Study of Science and investigating its impact is what we are built around.

Apple continues:

[S]cience, itself, through its systems of publication, funding, and advancement—had become biased toward generating a certain kind of finding: novel, attention grabbing, but ultimately unreliable…

“As a general rule, the incentives related to quantitative research are very different in the social sciences and in financial practice,” says James Owen Weatherall, author of The Physics of Wall Street. “In the sciences, one is mostly incentivized to publish journal articles, and especially to publish the sorts of attention-grabbing and controversial articles that get widely cited and picked up by the popular media. The articles have to appear methodologically sound, but this is generally a lower standard than being completely convincing. In finance, meanwhile, at least when one is trading with one’s own money, there are strong incentives to work to that stronger standard. One is literally betting on one’s research.”