The United States (Probably) Won’t Go to War with Iran

For weeks the Trump administration has been issuing warnings about increased attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies. Recently the administration revealed that it has satellite imagery of what it says are Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles onto a small boat. In response, the Pentagon recently presented national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s national security team with an updated plan that would send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or ramps up its development of nuclear weapons. Though the plans apparently do not include a ground invasion of Iran, what scenarios they might encompass has not yet been revealed. Nor is it entirely clear what sort of Iranian action might trigger a response.

Considering John Bolton’s longstanding calls for a more confrontational approach to Iran and Trump’s desire to squeeze greater concessions from Iran through tougher sanctions and “maximum pressure,” tensions between the United State and Iran are certainly rising. As my colleague John Glaser has pointed out, it would be difficult to design a strategy more likely to lead to “accidental” conflict than the path the Trump administration is pursuing today. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will there be war? Though the risk is not zero, the smart bet – for now – is that there will not be war.

Though making predictions about complex political outcomes like war is fraught with peril, a reasonable approach is to start by asking two questions. First, how determined is the United States to start, or avoid, a war with Iran? Second, how determined is Iran to start, or avoid, a war with the United States? Though many other factors might be at work, such as what’s at stake for each country, the relative military capabilities of each, and so forth, most of those factors eventually get captured in those two questions. If either country desires war, war is coming. But even if neither seeks war, rising tensions, accidents, and the psychological dispositions of individual leaders could lead to war if both countries don’t take enough steps to avoid it.

So far news reporting suggests that the Trump administration has not yet decided on war, but the signals are certainly mixed. Trump himself has said that “we’re not looking to hurt anybody” and that “I’d like to see them call me” to continue talks. Even Iranian officials don’t think Trump wants war. Speaking on Face the Nation, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said “We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation.” More generally, given Trump’s historical opposition to military intervention and nation building, it is hard to imagine Trump’s instincts guiding him to launch a war with Iran. After all, during the 2016 campaign Trump called the war in Iraq a horrible mistake, and a regime-change invasion of Iran would be a far bigger challenge.

Trump Isn’t Only “Constitutional Crisis” Afflicting Congressional Oversight

Earlier this week, Vox’s Sean Illing asked 10 law professors whether President Trump’s sweeping refusal to cooperate with congressional investigators has plunged the nation into “a constitutional crisis.”  I recommend the article, and I also observe that I’m 100% on Congress’s side regarding the legitimacy of its information queries. Indeed, I’m with my colleague Gene Healy, who has rightfully Tweeted that, “#ExecutivePrivilege is something judges just made up out of penumbras and emanations of Article II.”

For this post, however, I argue that congressional oversight, per se, is in its own state of “constitutional crisis” wholly independent from Trump. Specifically, I will make two claims. First, I explain why congressional oversight always has been sub-optimal. Then, I explain why contemporary oversight is acutely awful.

Even decades ago, when Members of Congress were policy savants relative to now, congressional oversight was known as the body’s “neglected duty.” In a famous 1984 article, Professors Mathew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz lent a conceptual framework to explain this inadequacy. Their core insight was to identify two types of congressional behavior regarding oversight. The first was the “police patrol,” which describes ongoing monitoring of the law’s execution. The second type was “fire alarm” oversight, by which the professors meant that lawmakers snap to attention only when hot-button issues become sufficiently politicized.

Quite obviously, the “police patrol” method is superior because, if it is done faithfully, then such supervision could head off the crises that lead to “fire alarms.” Nevertheless, the “fire alarm” approach takes less work, and it reaps more political currency in the form of attention. Due to these incentives, Congress has underinvested in oversight for as long as legislators have delegated power to execute the law.

In this manner, oversight was shortchanged in Congress during the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century. Back then, however, a decentralized power structure within the legislature provided a counter-incentive for the use of preferable “police patrol” techniques. As I explained in a prior post, Members of that period cared about policy because policy chops were necessary to succeed in Congress. At that time, committees and subcommittees competed with the president to manage administrative agencies, and, as with life generally, competitors do their homework.

Starting in the 1980s, however, power in Congress shifted from committees to party leadership. Many factors were at play in causing this change. Crucially, congressional leaders, such as Reps. Tip O’Neil and Newt Gingrich, altered the rules to facilitate centralization. The modernization of mass media played another important role, in that it allowed to party leadership to push a national message. Finally, recurrent impasses with the president over spending and budgets—known as the “fiscalization” of politics—facilitated the centralization of power by creating the necessity for high-level negotiations, which, naturally, would be conducted by congressional leaders and thereby enhanced their power accordingly.

Due to this shift, partisan affinity now trumps institutional prerogative, such that one party loses interest in oversight whenever “their guy” occupies the White House. Also due to the shift to centralized power, Members of Congress know less about policy-making because there’s little incentive to have such knowledge. Each of these factors works to undermine the occasion and performance of “police patrol” superintendence of the administrative state.

Yet the current contretemps between Congress and the Trump administration reveals that the legislature’s oversight function has withered further, such that “fire alarm” investigations, too, are falling by the wayside. To be precise, they’ve altered from an inferior form of oversight (relative to “police patrols”) to a worthless form.

Historically, “fire alarm” oversight pertained to catastrophes or governing scandals. In either case, the investigatory lodestar was reform. That is, congressional investigations traditionally sought to discern how something bad happened, and then how to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Even investigations that don’t easily fit this usual framework—such as Watergate—shared a nexus with governmental reform. Nixon’s excesses inspired institutional responses, including the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act and the 1977 Legislative Reorganization Act.

As I survey the current landscape of fire-alarm investigations, I see a qualitatively different application in the present day. When it comes to resource allocation for oversight, I can think of any number of “fire alarms” to sound, including:

  • The reported possibility of war (!!) with Iran;
  • The president’s declaration every other day of a fake “national emergency” to get what he wants without Congress getting in the way; and,
  • The EPA sneaking a major New Source Review regulation into the (unrelated) revision of an Obama-era climate rule.

Despite these—and many more—worthy targets for serious congressional oversight by opponents of the Trump administration, House leadership is pouring resources into getting Trump’s tax returns and relitigating the Mueller Report. I find Trump as off-putting and dangerous as anyone, but these strike me as the silliest possible subjects for oversight.

On the one hand, I think these investigations don’t inform anyone. Who doesn’t think Trump would fire subordinates—and then Tweet about it—to head off an investigation? And who doesn’t think Trump exaggerates his wealth all the time? Notwithstanding these qualities, which are baked into Trump’s brand, the American people elected him president, alas. The upshot is that I’m not convinced that these investigations bring much new to the table.

More importantly, I fail to see any prospect for reform. Neither of these investigations bears any relationship to a specific policy outcome. It’s all about Trump, the man, and none about Trump, the policymaker. Nor am I sanguine about the prospect that these investigations ultimately could inspire institutional reforms the way that Watergate did. Well into the third year of this presidency, I have not once seen the democrats reach out to Never-Trumpers to explore curbing the power of the office. Instead, the majority in the House seems to want only to damage Trump politically, and otherwise maintain the president’s power for when their party takes control.

In sum, I wholeheartedly support Congress’s right to information from President Trump, but I also bemoan its present use of that right.

Trump’s Latest Plan Shows That the Pro-Immigrant Side Is Winning

President Trump’s first legal immigration reform plan from August 2017 called for a 50 percent cut to the system. His second plan in January 2018 revised this to 38 percent. His third in June 2018 dropped the cuts to 10 percent. Now, his latest immigration plan drops all cuts. By this time next year, Trump could finally propose what the academic consensus says would create the most economic growth: a significant increase in legal immigration. The president’s flawed proposal is still a signal that the pro-immigrant side is winning.  

The White House’s one-pager about the plan is, to put it charitably, light on the details, but from what we know now, we can say that it is a decidedly mixed bag. Its only positive feature is that it increases skilled immigration, though less than the reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. But it more than offsets this increase by making it much more difficult to request asylum, capping the refugee program, banning U.S. citizens from sponsoring their siblings, parents, or adult children, and ending the diversity visa lottery. It also hints that it would impose the useless and error-prone E-Verify program on every American employer and employee.

The problem is that the president continues to view immigration as a zero-sum game in which one group of immigrants must suffer if another group benefits. U.S. employers can hire skilled workers without separating U.S. citizens from their immediate family members. The current level of immigration has no justification in morality or economics. Congress arbitrarily arrived at that number. The United States lags far behind other developed countries in net immigration. Indeed, it ranks in the bottom third for net immigration from 2015 to 2017 among countries with a per capita GDP above $20,000.

The biggest unknown is how the White House plan will address the 4 million people currently waiting for a green card in the family-sponsored immigration system—many of whom have already waited a decade or more. Prior proposals had canceled their applications and booted them from the lines. If that occurs under this plan, Congress should reject it on that basis alone. Not only is it incredibly unfair to abandon the promises that the United States has made to those people, but doing so would inevitably cause many to lose faith in the legal immigration system, adding to the rush at the border.

Table 1 provides a breakdown of the proposed legal immigration changes by category. These are estimates based on the statement that 57 percent of immigrants would be skills-based, 33 percent family-sponsored, and 10 percent humanitarian. The only way to reach these figures is by eliminating all family categories except spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and ending the diversity visa lottery. It also requires reducing the numbers of refugees from their 2017 peak of 120,356 to the new proposed permanent cap of 50,000 (which is actually higher than the president’s 2019 cap of 30,000). Then, if you reallocate all the green cards to the points system, you arrive at 57 percent being skilled or employer-sponsored.

But there are important caveats to this table. First, we know that the asylum program will be cut by new restrictions on border asylum claims. Second, we don’t know how restrictive the points system will be. The White House states that it will include people with “extraordinary talent,” “professional and specialized vocations,” and “exceptional students.” But those categories could be drawn very narrowly or very expansively. Third, the president implied that all future immigrants will be required to learn English before they even arrive. If that applies even to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, that would further cut legal immigration.

White House Immigration Plan’s Changes to the Green Card System

Comments on the details of the plan:

Cuts to the diversity and family programs: There is no economic justification for eliminating the diversity lottery program or the family-sponsored categories. President Trump equates these programs with “low-skilled” immigration, but this is untrue. Nearly half of all family-sponsored immigrants and diversity lottery winners have a college degree, meaning that they are far better educated than U.S.-born Americans. This is nearly the same level of education as the average Canadian immigrant.

Even if cuts to family and diversity immigrants resulted in fewer immigrants with less education, this is not a benefit to the U.S. economy, which still needs low-skilled workers. Nearly half of all job growth over this decade will come from jobs that don’t require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and even in 2026, 73 percent of jobs will still not require a college degree. Low-skilled immigrants start with lower wages, but they see faster wage growth than employer-sponsored immigrants, leading their wages to converge with U.S.-born workers.

Moreover, the academic consensus is that for the majority of low-skilled U.S.-born workers, immigration increases their wages (even Harvard’s George Borjas agrees). How can this be? Well, U.S. workers respond to increases in low-skilled immigration by shifting to less manually intensive jobs.

Cuts to asylum and the refugee program: The White House wants to impose a cap on the refugee program of 50,000 and make it more difficult to file asylum claims at the border. Yet according to the Trump administration’s Health and Human Services, refugees and asylees from 2005 to 2014 paid $63 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits to all levels of government. Refugees and asylees had a more positive fiscal effect because 81 percent were in their prime working years compared to just 63 percent of the U.S. population overall. The existence of asylum at the border has significantly reduced the rate of deaths at the border by illegal crossers as well. Asylum seekers receive background checks and health screenings at the border, making them preferable to the previous waves of illegal crossers.

New points system: Increasing the number of green cards for skilled workers is unequivocally positive and the president should be commended for abandoning his former-bills that did not increase skilled immigration, even while slashing the other immigration programs. But the market should determine the qualifications for workers, not the federal government. If this points system is too restrictive (e.g. focusing only on Nobel prize winners, valedictorians, etc.), not all of the green cards will be used, and it could actually result in a cut to legal immigration. 

Any points system should have as a baseline requirement having a job or job offer from a U.S. employer. Beyond that, prioritization within the system should focus primarily on workers with the highest wage offers because a high wage indicates high productivity. It is also appropriate to consider age insofar as younger workers have more time to contribute economically to the United States. Finally, some consideration should be given to workers with a proven track record for employment in the United States. Other factors—such as occupations, English language ability, educational attainment, good grades, or awards—are irrelevant and should not be included. Unfortunately, the president implies that the plan could include some of those factors, though the White House outline doesn’t lay out in detail how it will work.

Requiring English language proficiency and civics exam: Employers should determine the skills that are needed.  As studies have repeatedly shown, Americans actually benefit from immigrants who speak less English because it allows Americans to specialize in jobs requiring language skills, creating complementarities in the labor market that make both groups more productive. The government should not add irrelevant criteria for employment in the United States like a civics exam. Employers should decide which workers to hire. A civics exam and an English test are already appropriately required to become a citizen, not merely to come to live and work. Moreover, requiring English language of spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens would be an affront to Americans’ freedom to marry who they choose and adopt children who may not speak the language.

E-Verify mandate: E-Verify is the government’s attempt at a national identification system. The White House outline doesn’t explicitly name E-Verify but rather states that the plan “will ensure that all employees are legally authorized to work.” Many states already require employers to use it, and from those experiments, we know that E-Verify doesn’t stop illegal employment and that hundreds of thousands of legal workers have had their jobs delayed or terminated due to errors in the system. A mandate to use it would be probably the largest regulation in scope in the history of the United States in that it would affect every single employee and employer in the country. This aspect of the plan is unequivocally negative, though the Senate has included it in each of its major overhaul efforts in 2006, 2007, and 2013. 

In conclusion, this proposal does nothing to address other important immigration reforms, including the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the “dreamer” population, or the inadequate lesser-skilled guest worker programs. While it leaves out a lot and makes some big mistakes, the president is giving up an important talking point with his latest plan: that there are just too many immigrants coming to this country. That’s a win for the pro-immigrant side.

Competition and Cooperation in Markets

Markets are often portrayed as driven only by dog-eat-dog competition. But cooperation is central to markets as well. Businesses could not get anything done without the goodwill and cooperation of suppliers and customers.

Cooperation between competitors is sometimes important as well, in a good way. An example is the development of standards for new technologies. Business-led technical committees and agreements have been crucial to the success of Silicon Valley since the beginning. Adoption of standards in the private sector can be a complex, rivalrous, and messy process, but it works.

The Wall Street Journal provides a glimpse of how this process is playing out for 5G networks in an interview with Qualcomm’s Dino Flore:

“You have to understand this is a huge human endeavor, and actually the nation is kind of marginal,” says Dino Flore, vice president of technology at Qualcomm, a leading maker of equipment that connects mobile devices to the cellular network. Rather than a coordinated public initiative, he says, the new systems for cellular communications arose from “years of big R&D, planning and design, then standardization”—all led by private developers like Qualcomm and the wireless carriers that operate the network.

True, the U.S. has reason to be careful about foreign participation in its domestic 5G rollout. But Mr. Flore stresses that commercial cooperation across borders is a key part of creating the technology. “There’s thousands of companies” setting common design standards in what he describes as “a truly global initiative.”

… Mr. Flore recalls that “the first formal act” in creating international 5G standards “was a workshop in September 2015, which I chaired.” “About every 10 years,” he explains, “there is a need for a new platform, which is much more powerful and flexible than the previous one.” Developers plan each generation of cellular technology on a prearranged timeline, and 5G will gradually replace the increasingly strained 4G architecture.

… Even a research giant like Qualcomm can’t drive cellular technology on its own. To ensure that a given device can access the network anywhere in the world, every company in the business must accord with a set of shared technical specifications. To “keep things evolving, at the pace of every year or year and a half,” Mr. Flore says, Qualcomm and hundreds of other firms collaborate through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project. Founded in 1998, 3GPP is the organization that devises standards for cellular communications across the world’s major markets: North America, Europe and Asia.

“It’s kind of a huge human endeavor, with thousands of people involved,” Mr. Flore says. Eighteen working groups with hundreds of engineers meet about six times a year in cities around the world. “Usually not in tier-1 cities, as they are expensive,” Mr. Flore notes. “But that makes it fun. I have visited cities in the Midwest or in the middle of China I would have probably never seen otherwise.”

Inevitably 3GPP features frequent conflict. Engineers disagree about the best technical solutions, and firms jockey to give their own systems an advantage. In one recent dispute, Huawei and other Asian companies pushed a technique called polar coding, in which they have led development, while Qualcomm preferred low-density, parity-check coding, a method pioneered in North America and Europe. “Both LDPC and polar codes have been included in the standard” says Mr. Flore, who wasn’t directly involved in the matter. Yet analysts describe the outcome as a win for Huawei, because polar codes have never filled such an important and lucrative role.

The structure of 3GPP allows cooperation to emerge among competitors. Chairmen are chosen by secret ballot “so that people elect someone they trust,” and “delegates do not always go with the company guidance for voting.” The influence of government is similarly limited. “Of course 3GPP has to comply with local regulations,” Mr. Flore says, and “some governments put their own security requirements.”

But he adds that market incentives go a long way toward ensuring secure designs. “It would be very, very tough if everybody made a huge investment, and then after three years somebody breaks the security of a 3GPP system.” Mr. Flore says security has “worked very well in the past, but we don’t take it for granted.” As “a massive amount of things are connected around us,” engineers have devoted increasing effort to “the security and integrity of the systems.”

 

Are Republicans Still the Party of Free Trade?

Politico reporters recently sat down with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and asked his opinion about the future of the world trading system and what might be going on in President Trump’s head with regard to the increasing recourse to tariffs as a policy tool. Here’s what he said:

Grassley on Trump: “He believes in tariffs as a tool to get a negotiation as opposed to being an end in themselves. Then he hasn’t changed anything. If he has used tariffs because he believes they’re good, and I know he says that, but I don’t believe he actually believes that. I don’t see how he could believe it.”

“[H]e hasn’t changed the Republican Party. We’re still a party of free trade … I surely hope that he has learned from history that lower tariffs are good.” 

The first claim, that Trump is using tariffs as a negotiating tactic, was generally accepted when he first started applying tariffs. For example, the imposition of Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum in the name of national security were thought to be temporary, or at least, countries could negotiate exemptions. Korea, for instance, agreed to steel quotas as part of the renegotiated Korea-U.S. Trade Agreement (KORUS). Brazil and Argentina agreed to quotas as well. Australia is the only country that has secured a full exemption from both tariffs and quotas. Canada and Mexico were led to believe tariffs would be lifted at the conclusion of negotiations of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), but even after the agreement was signed last November, the tariffs have remained in place. While the parties appear to be getting closer to a resolution on this, it may just end up resulting in trading the tariffs for quotas, which can be an even worse outcome than tariffs themselves, depending on how high the quota amounts are.

As it turns out, there does not seem to be an end in sight for these tariffs, as President Trump has claimed they are responsible for a booming steel industry:

But the steel industry is far from thriving. Despite evidence that only a handful of firms are benefitting through increased prices, steel consuming industries are picking up the tab, and hiring has stagnated, Trump continues to laud his policy. And when the lion’s share of imports come from our closest allies, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, the national security rationale for these tariffs makes little sense.

If this were only about steel, perhaps we could be convinced that the use of tariffs as a tool to gain trade concessions from other countries may be a limited exercise. However, in addition to steel and aluminum tariffs under the cover of Section 232, Trump has also imposed tariffs through Section 201 on washing machines and solar products, which impact $1.9 billion and $5.2 billion of U.S. imports in these products, respectively. In addition, Section 301 tariffs have been imposed on China, and are being steadily expanded to include more products and at higher rates.

Nothing President Trump has said seems to suggest these tariffs will be going away anytime soon. In fact, he seems to accept tariffs as an end in themselves, contrary to what Senator Grassley claims. While it may be easy to brush off Trump’s tweets as bluster, he has continually shown he is willing to put his money where his mouth is (especially when U.S. consumers are paying for it):

 

Not only is he factually wrong that tariffs will make the country rich, what’s worse is that he actually does believe this. The last tweet even reveals his preference for tariffs over trade liberalization “of the traditional kind.” In his recent book, Bob Woodward has noted that President Trump wrote “Trade is Bad” in the margins of a speech, and when asked by former advisor Gary Cohn why he espouses such views, Trump responded “’I just do,’ Trump replied. ‘I’ve had these views for 30 years.’” A video of Trump appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1998 that has been circulated on Twitter adds further evidence.

And despite all of this, Senator Grassley claims that the Republicans are “still a party of free trade.” Sure, he may have asked for Section 232 tariffs to be removed from Canada and Mexico before the USMCA can go up for a vote in Congress, but what about all the other countries affected? What, in fact, has the “party of free trade” done to combat the protectionist instincts of the president? While there have been a limited number of bipartisan efforts to limit the president’s ability to levy tariffs, none of these actions have borne any fruit. Senator Grassley has not endorsed bills from Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Rob Portman (R-OH), though he has vowed to put forward his own legislation.

The U.S. Constitution vests Congress with the authority to regulate commerce, but over the years it has ceded that authority. If the current environment does not invigorate Republican members of Congress to work to take back this responsibility, it is hard to take claims that they value trade as a benefit for Americans seriously. Meanwhile, polls suggest that most Americans support free trade, and Democrats have surpassed Republicans as its most ardent supporters. We have yet to see whether Democrats will take up the mantle of free traders, but in the meantime, the Republicans certainly can no longer claim that title, as they continue to make excuses for the president’s actions. The party of free trade? No. More like the Grand Old Protectionists.

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DC Vouchers: Bang for the Buck

Standardized test scores aren’t what they used to be. From A Nation at Risk in 1983 to Common Core around 2010, they were close to exclusively how we assessed whether students and schools were succeeding. But over the years the monomaniacal focus on test scores increasingly grated on schools and families, and with the Common Core threatening to put everyone on the road to the exact same standards and tests, there was a political revolt. At about the same time an empirical revolt was brewing, with increasing evidence that schools’ test scores may not correlate all that well with other important outcomes, ranging from college attendance to health. Which brings us to the latest evaluation of the Washington, DC, voucher program.

After the first two reports in the three-installment series found negative test score effects it was easy to be disappointed, even while realizing that test scores are very cramped measures, and the DC voucher program was functioning in a district where choice, once you add in charter schools and choice among traditional public schools, was the norm. Choice is still the norm—78 percent of students who applied for vouchers but did not receive them nonetheless went to schools other than those to which they were assigned—but now test scores for DC voucher students are statistically indistinguishable from those of applicants who did not receive vouchers.

So DC vouchers are a test-score wash. But they are a plus in many other areas, including reducing chronic absenteeism (see chart above), increasing student satisfaction, and making students feel safe. Meanwhile, they have no overall negative impacts. And all this at a fraction of the cost of traditional DC public schools. The voucher cap is $9,022 for grades K-8 and $13,534 for 9-12, while traditional DC publics spend around $27,000 per student.

All in the world of school choice test scores is not good – see the most recent assessment of Louisiana’s particularly troubled voucher program. But more and more we are seeing that test scores are not the super-measures we thought—or at least acted like—they were, and school choice is—and must be—about much more.

Government Should Keep Its Hands Off Our Tofu Sausages!

You may or may not want to eat something called a “veggie burger,” but you probably have a good idea what is in it: Vegetables. And not meat. Similarly, you also probably have a good idea what is in a “hamburger”: Beef, not ham. And a “cheeseburger”: Not just a big cheese patty, but cheese melted on top of beef (yum!). Consumers are pretty savvy about these things.

Sometimes governments try to offer “clarity” through labeling regulations, but in doing so they often make things more confusing. Last year we wrote about U.S. government efforts to prevent dairy-free milk products from using the word “milk” on their packaging. Now, the European Union’s legislative body, the European Parliament, is going after the millennial scourge of plant-based products with “meaty” words in their name (avocado toast appears to be safe for now). As The Guardian reports:

Veggie burgers are for the chop, a Brussels committee has decreed, to be replaced by the less palatable-sounding “veggie discs”.

And it won’t be just bean or mushroom burgers condemned to the food bin of history. Vegan sausages, tofu steaks and soya escalopes could all be approaching their ultimate best-before date, after a vote in the European parliament on revisions to a food-labelling regulation.

In a move that some MEPs suspect bears the fingerprints of the meat industry, the parliament’s agriculture committee this week approved a ban on producers of vegetarian food using nomenclature usually deployed to describe meat.

The protected designations would include steak, sausage, escalope, burger and hamburger, under a revised regulation that passed with 80% approval. The measures will now be voted on by the full parliament after May’s European elections, before being put to member states and the European commission.

The French socialist MEP Éric Andrieu … said MEPs had voted purely in the best interests of the consumer and it should be seen as an opportunity for vegetarian brands to make their mark.

“We felt that steak should be kept for real steak with meat and come up with a new moniker for all these new products. There is a lot to be done in this front, a lot of creativity will be needed,” he said. “People need to know what they are eating. So people who want to eat less meat know what they are eating – people know what is on their plate.”

We’re not so sure that calling a veggie burger a veggie disc is going to help these meat alternative producers “make their mark.” What on earth is a veggie disc anyway? Can we play frisbee with it? (We would probably still be curious to try it though, as long as it comes with fries). But more broadly, this proposed change to EU food labelling laws raises some important policy questions, and not just for Europeans, as there is a similar effort underway in the U.S. to prevent plant-based foods from using terms such as “beef” or “meat” in their labels.

Last year, Missouri passed a law reserving the use of the term “meat” for products that are “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” The Missouri law has been challenged in court, and a settlement is expected soon.  However, that hasn’t stopped other states from taking up similar legislation, and there is also a push by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association to restrict the use of the terms “beef” and meat” at the federal level.

Before the competition for who can create the most restrictive labelling requirements gets out of hand, EU and U.S. lawmakers should consider the following: Does the additional information, or lack of information, add clarity for consumers, or does it create confusion? Let’s consider the Missouri law. As NPR reports with regard to Tofurky plant-based deli slices: “Under the law, those aforementioned Tofurky deli slices would have to be described like ‘protein textured’ rather than ‘meaty’ or ‘soy roast beef.’” First of all, we have serious doubts that anyone has ever described something they have eaten as “protein textured.” And as a related point, it is worth considering whether the requirements of the labelling regulation provide any helpful information about the product.

Second, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association claims that plant-based food producers are misleading consumers by using terms associated with traditional meat products that come from live animals. For instance, they claim that the Beyond Meat company’s use of the term “burger” in its “The Beyond Burger” is a prime example of such misinformation. We encourage you to peruse the Beyond Meat product site and let us know if you find it misleading. The label for the Beyond Burger says “Plant-Based Burger Patties” in bold font on the front of the package. Is this misleading? Is there any reason you might think this came from a cow? To take another example, while sometimes people seem confused about whether a hotdog is a sandwich, no one thinks it actually contains dog meat, do they? Consumers are generally quite knowledgeable about these things. And if they are confused, they can either read the list of ingredients, ask someone, or Google it.

The French MEP pushing for these strict rules in the EU suggested that we look to Europe’s “foodie culture” in understanding the importance of the law. But foodie culture isn’t frozen in time, it evolves as people become concerned about other things, such as the humane treatment of animals, for instance. Shouldn’t policy be flexible enough to let consumers express their actual concerns and allow companies to respond?