Is the Trump Administration Pushing for a Cold War with China?

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Josh Rogin argued this:

Despite what you may have read, the United States’ strategy toward China does not entail launching another Cold War, imposing a zero-sum game or even winning a “clash of civilizations.” In fact, the entire objective of the Trump administration’s Asia approach is to avoid outright conflict with China. But to do that, Beijing must be deterred from continuing on its aggressive path.

The idea that the White House’s new approach to confront China’s economic aggression and military expansion represents a “Cold War mentality” is popular with pundits both in Washington and in Beijing. But that accusation misunderstands what the United States is trying to do with China. …

Perhaps I am one of the pundits he had in mind, given that I wrote the following earlier this year:

Talking Ourselves into a Cold War with China

Sometimes the latest turns of phrase in policy circles are just fleeting headlines, soon to be forgotten. As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton called for “smart and fair trade.” But she disappeared from the political scene before we figured out what that meant.

However, other times they lead us down the road towards real changes in policy. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Bush administration officials were accusing Saddam Hussein of being involved. At the time, the invasion of Iraq was hardly inevitable, and may not have seemed likely, but armed with the phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” the administration got the war momentum going, and that is the direction in which the country went.

The U.S.-China relationship is facing similar attempts to define it with very serious sounding terminology, as U.S. policymakers are in the grips of the latest bout of buzzwords and groupthink. The U.S.-China relationship, we are told, may undergo a “conscious uncoupling.” The two countries could be moving towards an “economic cold war.” Actual war is unlikely (although you never know), but nevertheless a seismic geopolitical shift is supposedly upon us.

There is certainly plenty of talk in Washington about a Cold War and a “clash of civilizations.” But is any of it coming from the Trump administration, rather than from pundits? Rogin points to one piece of recent evidence and quickly dismisses it:

Those who criticize U.S. policy on China argue that the United States went looking for another enemy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some point to the unfortunate remarks by Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s policy planning director, who clumsily called the U.S.-China competition “a fight with a really different civilization and ideology.” That was an error, not a defining statement on U.S. policy.

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EPA Co-benefits Are Fine, But the Agency Must Tell the Whole Story

Should you be worried about mercury emitted from power plants?

Sure, but only if you are a pregnant woman, who during gestation consumes about 220 pounds of fish caught from exclusively the top ten percent most polluted fresh waters of the United States, despite all the signs along these rivers and lakes warning “DO NOT EAT THE FISH!

Don’t take my word for it. I’m simply relaying EPA science. And not the ‘bad” kind produced by the Trump administration; rather, I’m talking about virtuous EPA science as practiced by the Obama administration.

A little background: mercury emissions aren’t a direct threat to humans, but instead settle onto water bodies, and then make their way up the aquatic food chain. Because mercury is a neurotoxin, the fear is that pregnant women can engender developmental disorders in their offspring by eating fish that have bio-accumulated the toxin.

In the course of promulgating the Obama-era Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants, the EPA stated that it considers “IQ loss estimates of 1-2 points as being clearly of public health significance,” even though this low a number rests comfortably within the error of measurement inherent to an IQ test. According to the EPA’s analysis, the Mercury Rule was necessary to prevent an IQ loss of 1.1 points supposedly suffered by children born to a putative population of pregnant women from substance families, who during their pregnancies eat 220 pounds of self-caught fish reeled in from the most polluted bodies of fresh water. Notably, the EPA failed to identify a single member of this supposed population. Instead, these women were modeled to exist.

Even under EPA’s ultra-accommodating analysis of its rules’ benefits, the agency pegged the benefits of the Mercury Rule at a mere $6 million. In stark contrast, the agency estimated that the rule would cost about $10 billion annually, making it one of the most expensive regulations ever.

NASA Spending

President Trump is tweeting about NASA today. He is worried about “all of the money we are spending” on the agency.

It is $21 billion this year. The chart shows spending on NASA since 1970 in real or inflation-adjusted dollars.

NASA Spending

1.3 Percent of All Central Americans in the Northern Triangle Were Apprehended by Border Patrol This Fiscal Year – So Far

Border Patrol apprehensions of Central Americans from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rose again this month to 444,509, so far this fiscal year (FY).  According to United Nations population estimates, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 1.32 percent of all residents of the Northern Triangle countries to date this fiscal year.  Northern Triangle citizens account for 75 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions this FY.

So far in FY 2019, 1.8 percent of the population of Honduras, 1.2 percent of the population of Guatemala, and 0.9 percent of the population of El Salvador have been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol.  The percent of the Northern Triangle populations apprehended by Border Patrol are still far lower than the annual emigration rates from many European countries during the Age of Migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  According to Dudley Baines, the emigration rate from Italy was about 2 percent per year from 1901-1913 while it was almost 4 percent per year from Calabria during the same time.  Regardless, Border Patrol apprehensions in FY 2019 as a percentage of the sending country’s population is very high.

The rate of Northern Triangle emigration has accelerated rapidly over the last several years as reflected by the percent of the population in those countries apprehended by Border Patrol (Figure 1).  However, the collapse of Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexicans is equally dramatic as it fell from about 0.6 percent of Mexico’s population in 2007 to 0.1 percent in 2019.  A major difference between the apprehension of Mexicans in the past and those from the Northern Triangle today is that the latter are turning themselves into Border Patrol to ask for asylum while the former were trying to evade.

Figure 1: Percent of Northern Triangle Countries and Mexico Apprehended by Border Patrol

Figure 1 does not include the number of immigrants from those countries who received green cards, work visas, entered unlawfully and escaped detection, or returned to their home countries from the United States.  It is just a gross apprehension rate by Border Patrol.  It both undercounts and overcounts the net emigration rate from the Northern Triangle.  It overcounts because only some of those apprehended are let in and many are removed, it doesn’t include other deportations from the interior of the United States, and it doesn’t count voluntary returns.  It undercounts because it doesn’t include the number of green cards issued to those abroad in the Northern Triangle nor does it include the number of other visas issued to them.  The net effect on the net emigration rate of the Northern Triangle is ambiguous.

Postal Service in Crisis

Mail volumes are falling and the U.S. Postal Service is losing billions of dollars a year while accumulating large liabilities.

The USPS has partly offset declining mail revenues with growth in package revenues. But the company’s finances look pretty bleak overall.

The table below illustrates the USPS’s predicament with data from 2009 and 2018 from here, here, and here.

The data in the table reflects that:

  • Mail demand is falling and package demand is rising. The problem is that mail is more profitable and accounts for most of USPS revenues.
  • USPS management has cut costs where it can, such as by reducing the worker count. But Congress resists other cost savings such as closing post offices, even though the number of retail customers is falling.
  • Marketing mail has become by far the largest type of mail by volume. Thus we have a vast fleet of trucks driving around the country, burning gas and creating pollution, and the main thing being delivered is junk mail.
  • More than three-quarters of USPS costs are employee compensation, which includes excessive health and pension benefits. About four-fifths of the USPS labor force is unionized.
  • USPS has been losing money for more than a decade. Expenses are a few billion a year higher than revenues.
  • USPS assets are falling and liabilities are soaring. The largest liabilities are unfunded retiree health benefits, worker compensation costs, and debt.

What’s the solution? I testified to Congress that the USPS should be privatized and postal markets opened to competition. Those reforms would give the USPS the flexibility it needs to cut costs, diversify, and innovate, while creating equal tax and regulatory treatment of businesses across postal and package markets.

USPS Metrics

Rawls vs. Nozick and Rand: The Musical Version

Following a London West End staged reading, a cast soundtrack was released last month for A Theory of Justice: The Musical. The show, composed in 2013 and performed at Oxford and the Edinburgh Fringe since then, takes as its protagonist Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, whose influential work argues for a version of modern liberalism in which the state plays a significant redistributive role. In the plot, Rawls travels through time and encounters earlier political philosophers such as Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes. As for dramatic tension, that is provided by Rawls’ conflict with contemporary antagonists Robert Nozick, his libertarian colleague in the Harvard philosophy department famed for his work Anarchy, State, and Utopia, along with novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, who seems to loom as large in the modern liberal imagination as ever (her character here, evoking Lola in Damn Yankees, is apparently assigned the showstopping number, and dances a dangerously persuasive tango with Nozick).  

According to coverage of the show, Nozick and Rand are portrayed as a couple. That’s absurdly at variance with the lives of those real figures, of course. But musicals, like unfortunate political theories, take liberties.

What Is North Korea Like Behind the Headlines?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been known as the “Hermit Kingdom.” That label originally applied to the isolationist monarchy which eventually was swallowed by Japan and turned into a colony. For decades North Korea similarly looked inward. Visiting the DPRK, as I did in 1992, was a rare experience.

The North is much more open today. When I returned two years ago I flew in sitting next to a Brit who was on his third tourist trip. He was planning a helicopter flight over the capital of Pyongyang, which would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

However, the country remains mysterious, even inscrutable, to most American policymakers. Few have spoken with someone who knows North Korea. Fewer have visited or met a North Korean. Policy is effectively made in an information vacuum, where assumptions and presumptions dominate the discussion.

Equally important, Americans who do visit the DPRK—not many these days, given Washington’s ban on most travel there—typically stick to Pyongyang. That’s where important decisions are made. But the city is artificial even by North Korean standards. The countryside is rawer and poorer, and has changed much less than Pyongyang in recent years.

To help expose the Washington policy community to the North beyond Pyongyang Cato is holding a policy forum, “Peering Beyond the DMZ: Understanding North Korea behind the Headlines,” at noon on June 11.

Our speakers will be Heidi Linton, with Christian Friends of Korea, Daniel Jasper, with the American Friends Service Committee, and Randall Spadoni, with World Vision. All have visited the DPRK while working on humanitarian projects. As a result, they have encountered a country mostly unseen by policymakers. They will discuss their experiences working with North Koreans to address some of the desperate humanitarian problems facing the North.

Of course, the challenge posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program would not disappear even if U.S. officials better understood the DPRK. However, America’s response should move beyond confrontation. Washington has discovered how difficult it is to force other governments to submit to American demands. Policymakers should look for other ways to influence other nations and peoples.

North Korea has evolved, in some ways significantly, since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father in 2011. More changes are likely. Watchful and wary engagement is more likely to encourage positive reform than unremitting hostility. That kind of engagement requires a far better understanding of the DPRK, both its system and people. Increasing that understanding is the objective of this forum.