Temperament Matters in Foreign Policy

The last few weeks have seen a surprisingly activist foreign policy from the Trump administration. Since the inauguration, the rate of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the willingness to launch special operations raids in countries like Yemen, and the use of taunting rhetoric towards adversaries had all increased in comparison to the Obama administration.

But this month things seem to have been put into hyper-drive. Trump authorized a symbolic punitive airstrike on a Syrian military base–a serious escalation that had no legal authorization. The administration also threatened to engage in preventive war against North Korea if it should move forward with a sixth nuclear test. Trump ordered an aircraft carrier strike group to sail within 300 miles of North Korea’s coastline in a show of force meant to bolster this threat. And finally, Trump’s penchant for militarism was on display when America’s biggest non-nuclear bomb ever used in active combat was dropped in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to say whether these are signs of a clear Trump Doctrine emerging, or whether this intensification of military activism abroad simply reflects Trump’s character. One can easily recall warnings from candidate Trump’s opponents, on the Democratic side but also from many in his own party, that he was temperamentally unfit for office.

In the latest edition of Survival, Francios Heisbourg, Chair of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Council, which publishes the journal, compares Trump to Kaiser Wilhelm II, the leader of Germany from 1888 to 1918. Wilhelm II goes down in history as the man who took Germany down the path of naval expansion, colonial aggrandizement, and aggressive militarism, eventually contributing to the outbreak of World War I thanks to military postures that were a great departure from those of the more restrained Otto Von Bismarck, whom the Kaiser dismissed in 1890. Heisbourg quotes a German historian describing Wilhelm II thusly:

[He had] a taste for the modern–technology, industry, science–but at the same time [was] superficial, hasty, restless, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work…without any sense of sobriety, or balance and boundaries, or even for reality or real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success…He wanted every day to be his birthday–unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off.

A Response to Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander (SA) has provided advice to the free speech movement in general and to a student group at Harvard University in particular. If you want more people, especially on the liberal left or within the social justice movement, to support free speech, he says, then you should not invite speakers just because they are controversial.

SA picks AEI scholar and social scientist Charles Murray as an example. In March, protesting students at Middlebury College shut down Murray when he was invited to speak and debate a local professor. SA defends Murray’s right to speak, but says that if a college invites him or any other controversial speaker it should be because they are interested in his ideas, not because they want ”to invite a generic offensive person and he fits the bill.”

Does SA really believe that the motives behind an invitation to a controversial speaker make any difference to people who believe that he or she shouldn’t be allowed to speak at a given college? I doubt it. To them, the speaker (in this case Charles Murray) is the problem, it’s not whether the organizers had a sincere interest in Murray’s ideas or just were looking for ”the ugliest and most hateable person” they could find.

Allison Stanger, the professor at Middlebury who was supposed to debate Murray, has deep disagreements with Murray and planned to take his arguments apart as best as she could. It didn’t matter to the students. They didn’t want to have Murray in person at the college.

And by the way, there is no such thing as ”a generic offensive person.” The sense of offense and insult is always in the eye of the beholder, it’s not something one can measure in any objective way. What is offensive to SA, may sound like sweet poetry to someone else. (Recall the U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s remark that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”) Even within the same religious or ethnic or political community, there may be different perceptions of what is offensive to the group and its members. This remark may seem banal. But we should keep in mind its truth at a time of grievance fundamentalism when people play the offense card to silence voices whose opinions they don’t like. This truth is especially important for the academic world whose business is knowledge production.

SA has criticized the Open Campus Initiative on Harvard University for wanting to raise awareness of free speech by inviting controversial speakers. It later turned out that the student group’s intention was to promote ”ideological diversity for the student body where it is believed to be lacking,” not just to pick the most controversial speakers. They also said that later on that they would invite speakers from the left.

There are several problems with SA’s reasoning. Let me deal with a few.

Supporters of BATs and VATs are wrong about trade and taxes

My crusade against the border-adjustable tax (BAT) continues.

In a column co-authored with Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus, I explain in today’s Wall Street Journal why Republicans should drop this prospective source of new tax revenue.

…this should be an opportune time for major tax cuts to boost American growth and competitiveness. But much of the reform energy is being dissipated in a counterproductive fight over the “border adjustment” tax proposed by House Republicans. …Republican tax plans normally receive overwhelming support from the business community. But the border-adjustment tax has created deep divisions. Proponents claim border adjustability is not protectionist because it would automatically push up the value of the dollar, neutralizing the effect on trade. Importers don’t have much faith in this theory and oppose the GOP plan.

Much of the column is designed to debunk the absurd notion that a BAT is needed to offset some mythical advantage that other nations supposedly enjoy because of their value-added taxes.

Here’s what supporters claim.

Proponents of the border-adjustment tax also are using a dodgy sales pitch, saying that their plan will get rid of a “Made in America Tax.” The claim is that VATs give foreign companies an advantage. Say a German company exports a product to the U.S. It doesn’t pay the American corporate income tax, and it receives a rebate on its German VAT payments. But an American company exporting to Germany has to pay both—it’s subject to the U.S. corporate income tax and then pays the German VAT on the product when it is sold.

Sounds persuasive, at least until you look at both sides of the equation.

When the German company sells to customers in the U.S., it is subject to the German corporate income tax. The competing American firm selling domestically pays the U.S. corporate income tax. Neither is hit with a VAT. In other words, a level playing field.

Here’s a visual depiction of how the current system works. I include the possibility that that German products sold in America may also get hit by the US corporate income tax (if the German company have a US subsidiary, for instance). What’s most important, though, is that neither American-produced goods and services nor German-produced goods and services are hit by a VAT.

Government Can’t Shut Down Public Recording That Doesn’t Interfere with Law Enforcement

A group called People Helping People heard of potential civil rights abuses and harassment occurring at Border Patrol checkpoints in Arizona—interior ones, not right at the border—so started a campaign to monitor such activity. The Border Patrol then decided to prohibit any recording within 150 feet of their location, which includes the public roadside.

A federal district court found that the new rule was a valid time, place, or manner restriction on First Amendment-protected activity. Cato, with the assistance of the UCLA Law School First Amendment Clinic and noted scholar Eugene Volokh, has filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse that ruling.

Recording of law enforcement officers engaged in the public performance of their duties promotes the free discussion of government affairs. The roadside in this case is a “traditional public forum” of the sort that the Supreme Court has held to be required to be open to First Amendment-protected activities. The Border Patrol even got a permit that requires that the facilities be “maintained in a manner that will not interfere with the reasonable use of the public right-of-way.” The government cannot choose to shut down such a forum when it is still being used as a public thoroughfare.

There is also evidence that the Border Patrol closed this area specifically in retaliation for People Helping People’s First Amendment activities; new barriers were added within hours of the start of the monitoring program, making it significantly harder to film, and passers-by were told that the barriers were there only to exclude protesters.

The restriction is also not valid because it does not leave open “alternative channels of communication,” as the Supreme Court has required. In McCullen v. Coakley (2014), the Supreme Court struck down a 35-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic because it burdened more speech than was necessary to advance the government’s interest. A 150-foot buffer zone burdens even more speech, entirely preventing the recording of law enforcement officers, rather than merely regulating the means of doing so.

Even if this were not a public forum, the Border Patrol’s policy constitutes viewpoint discrimination because it allowed observers who were critical of People Helping People to enter the enforcement zone and record. At base, this restriction is unreasonable because there is no articulable reason to prohibit recording from a public roadside that doesn’t interfere with the Border Patrol’s activities.

When the Ninth Circuit takes up Jacobson v. Department of Homeland Security later this spring/summer, it should reverse the district court and strike down the Border Patrol’s buffer zone.

Global Science Report: Hypotheses Masquerading as Facts in Federal Report on Climate Change Impacts in the U.S.

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

However, in addition to some very wet periods, the [Southeast] region has also experienced periods of extreme drying.
- U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2014

The quote above is from the 2014 federal report, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, Southeastern Region. Given the title and the subject, one would have to conclude that our government is telling us that this is a result of climate change.

“Authoritative” documents such as this often wind up in legal proceedings, as the “science” backup for proposed regulations. As such, statements of this ilk should be based upon some semblance of reality.

We find that many of these “factuals” are indeed subject to test. The one above is yet another assertion that climate change, presumably caused by emissions of carbon dioxide, is the cause of an increase in the frequency or severity of “extreme” events.

Floods and droughts qualify. After all, a flood is merely a cases of extreme high streamflow, and a prolonged drought will result an extreme low. Further, it is hard to find any weather extreme, any hurricane, tornado or wildfire where some apparent authority finds a television camera and does not blame it on global warming.

Cutting the National Endowment for the Arts

Establishment reporters don’t seem to think that anything good happens in society without a stream of federal money attached to it. That sort of tunnel vision was on display in a recent Washington Post story about the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). And it was on display again in the Post today in a story about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The story discusses NEA projects in Indiana, a state presumably chosen for the same reason that the prior story focused on the ARC and Kentucky: the Post wants to sow dissension in a part of the country that voted for Trump.

NEA-Indiana projects described by the Post include $3,000 for a tunnel made of twisted branches and $10,000 for a sound project that “takes place in multiple spaces and includes a hangout where visitors can listen to records, have a coffee or beer, and will eventually include a low-powered FM radio station.” Numerous NEA grants seem to trickle through state and local governments before being dispensed to local artists and nonprofits, thus creating jobs for paper pushers along the way.

The story warns that the NEA is “under attack.” President Trump “has proposed eliminating the agency altogether.” What a heathen! In Indiana, “artists and nonprofit leaders in small towns or underserved communities fear that lawmakers don’t understand how much they depend on the millions of arts dollars distributed each year outside booming metropolises.”

The NEA’s annual budget is $150 million. Indiana has two percent of the U.S. population, so I would guess that it receives about two percent of NEA funding, or $3 million a year.

If NEA spending in Indiana is important, couldn’t Indiana governments and philanthropists support it? State and local governments in Indiana currently spend $43 billion a year from their own revenue sources. Couldn’t they carve out just $3 million—or 0.007 percent—of that to support local quilters, hoop net makers, puppeteers, and other Indiana craftspeople?

For further reading on the NEA, see here.

Paid Leave Means Women Pay

Who pays for women’s mandated paid leave and other women-centric labor policies? At a superficial level, it depends on who you ask. Proposals for federal mandated paid leave and child care laws run the gamut, and advocates identify government, taxpayers, or private companies as backers. Unfortunately, those answers reveal a glaring oversight: directly or indirectly, women will pay.

Economists of a variety of ideological persuasions agree, including Larry Summers, former Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama. In 1989, Summers wrote “Some Simple Economics of Mandated Benefits” where he asserted that “The expected cost of mandated benefits is greater for women than it is for men.”

What does that mean? In his paper, Summers concludes that women will be paid less or not hired as a result of mandated benefits. In his words, “If wages could freely adjust, these differences in expected benefit costs would be offset by differences in wages.” And if not? “[T]here will be efficiency consequences as employers seek to hire workers with lower benefit costs.”