Conflating Terrorism and Insurgency

John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart

While it is not true that 9/11 “changed everything,” the tragedy did have a strong impact on language, on how terrorism has come to be understood and explained. In particular, terrorism’s apparent incidence, and therefore the seeming importance, has been multiplied by effectively conflating it with insurgency.

Even including 9/11, the number of fatalities committed by terrorists of all stripes outside war zones, has been, with very few exceptions, remarkably low both before and after 9/11. During the period from 1970 to 2013 — which includes 9/11 — the yearly chance an individual within the United States would be killed by terrorism was one in four million. For the period after 9/11 until the present day, that rate is one in 90 million. The rate for other developed countries and even for most less-developed ones is similar.

The vast majority of what is now commonly being tallied as terrorism occurs in war zones like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. But to a considerable degree, this is the result of a more expansive application since 9/11 of standard definitions of terrorism, to the point where virtually any violence per­petrated by rebels in civil wars is now being called terrorism.

The post-9/11 conflation of insurgency with terrorism makes it seem that the world is awash in terrorism.

The authors of a recent book dealing with the widely-used Global Terrorism Database note that, “although there are many definitions of terrorism, most commentators and experts agree on several key elements, captured in the definition we use here: “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.” Similarly, after extended consideration, analyst Michael Stohl defines terrorism as “the purposeful act or the threat of the act of violence to create fear and/or compliant behavior in a victim and/or the audience of the act or threat” and Bruce Hoffman as “the deliberate creation of exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.”

[T]his is the result of a more expansive application since 9/11 of standard definitions of terrorism, to the point where virtually any violence per­petrated by rebels in civil wars is now being called terrorism.

But, as Carl von Clausewitz stressed, the whole effort in war—at least in non-criminal ones—is to obtain political goals. In his most famous formulation, “war is a mere continuation of policy with other means” and is “a true political instrument.” And the means to attaining that goal, stresses Clausewitz, involve using coercion and inflicting fear and intimidation to break the enemy’s will—that is, to create “compliant behavior.” In battle, says Clausewitz, “the loss of morale” is the “major deci­sive factor.”

Wars, then, do not involve the annihilation of the enemy, but the breaking of the enemy’s will, something that sometimes comes quite quickly and sometimes, as happened to the United States in Vietnam, only after long episodes of attrition.

Focusing only on violence against civilians does not really make for a helpful distinction between war and terrorism. Some terrorist campaigns seek to avoid civilian casualties as do some military ones. However, many of each variety kill civilians either as an incidental result of violence or through direct intent. As legal national security expert Matthew Waxman points out, the “punishment of civilians is a commonly used strategy of coercion” in warfare.

Terrorism differs from war, and particularly from insurgency, not in its essential method or goal or in the targets of violence, but in the frequency with which violence is committed.

Before 9/11, terrorism was, by definition, a limited phenomenon. It was often called the “weapon of the weak” because it inflicted damage only sporadically. If terroristic violence became really sustained and extensive in an area—if it was no longer fitful or sporadic—the activity was generally no longer called terrorism, but rather war or insurgency.

Thus, the Irish Republican Army was commonly taken to be a terrorist enterprise, while fighters in Sri Lanka in the 1990s were considered to be combatants in a civil war situation. And in the early and middle 1960s, the Vietnamese Communists’ campaign of assassination, ambush, harassment, sabotage, and assault was generally considered insurgent or guerrilla war, not terrorism, because violence was so sustained — even though its campaign included acts of violence against civilians that were often essentially random.

If terroristic violence became really sustained and extensive in an area—if it was no longer fitful or sporadic—the activity was generally no longer called terrorism, but rather war or insurgency.

The U.S. military applied this distinction in the war in Iraq, even after 9/11. In the early days, when violence was sporadic, those opposing the American presence were called “ter­rorists.” When the violence became more continuous, they became “insurgents.”

The definitional condition could change if terrorists were to become capable of visiting very substantial destruction with episodic attacks. Under our approach, the activity would still be considered terrorism because it would remain sporadic, but the damage inflicted could hardly be said to be limited. In the early months and years after 9/11, many feared that was going to come about. But it didn’t, and the tragic event seems increasingly to stand out as an aberration, not as a harbinger. A decade and a half after the event, 9/11 remains an extreme outlier—scarcely any terrorist act before or since, even those so designated that take place in war zones, has inflicted even one-tenth as much damage.

If one wishes to embrace the broader definition of terrorism that effectively took hold after 9/11, a huge number of violent endeavors that had previously been called civil wars would have to be recategorized. This would include, for example, the decade-long conflict in Algeria in the 1990s in which perhaps 100,000 people perished. Since 1945, in fact, civil wars reached a peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, when 20 or 25 were being waged in any given year. In this century, that number has declined to a half dozen or so.

If one wishes to embrace the broader definition of terrorism that effectively took hold after 9/11, a huge number of violent endeavors that had previously been called civil wars would have to be recategorized.

The definitional confusion can be seen currently when ISIS is commonly labeled a band of terrorists, even though it occupies territory, runs social services, and regularly confronts armed soldiers in direct combat. In any armed conflict before the cur­rent century, that would be called an insurgency. In the civil war in Syria, the United States brands those fighting the government of Bashar Al-Assad to its own convenience: ISIS fighters are deemed to be “terrorists,” while those insurgents approved by the United States are labeled the “moderate opposition.” Assad himself is more consistent, if equally self-serving: any violent opposition to a sitting government, he says, is “terrorism.”  Assad’s perspective, one that has become increasingly popular since 9/11, would allow us to retire the concept of “civil war” just about entirely.

This process can be taken a step further. Some analysts argue that terrorism is very frequently committed by states, as well as by “non-state actors”—often pointing to Hiroshima. If that element of the definition is adjusted, the entire category of “war,” including those of the inter­national variety, could substantially vanish. Almost all violence with a policy or ideological goal would become “terrorism.”

But even without that extreme extension, the post-9/11 conflation of insurgency with terrorism makes it seem that the world is awash in terrorism, something that stokes unjustified alarm outside war zones, where terrorism remains a quite limited hazard. It is certainly true that there are several terrible civil wars going on. But in decades past, civil wars were much more frequent. Insurgents in these wars, like those today, often applied massacre, random violence, dismemberment, assassination, propaganda barrages, sabotage, ambush, torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, summary execution, and even genocide. They just weren’t called terrorists. 

John Mueller a political scientist at Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Mark Stewart is a civil engineer at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

The Hong Kong Dollar, Rock Solid

Steve H. Hanke

The currency speculators are restless, again. Many, like George Soros and Kyle Bass, are reportedly taking aim at the Hong Kong dollar (HKD). HKD bear circles think China’s renmimbi (RMB) will lose value against the U.S. dollar (USD) as China’s economy slows down and capital flight from China continues. This, it is asserted, will put pressure on the HKD, and force its devaluation. Thus rendering the fixed rate of 7.8 HKD/USD null and void, and pumping profits into the pockets of those who bet on a devaluation of the HKD.

Like past speculative attacks against the HKD, this will fail and the bears will be forced back into hibernation, suffering large losses. What is fascinating is how so many experienced currency speculators, like George Soros, can be so ill-informed about Hong Kong’s monetary setup. This is far from the first speculative attack on the HKD; the most massive occurred during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. We cannot forget hedge fund guru Bill Ackerman’s well-advertised “bet the house” attack against the HKD in 2011. It failed badly.

The currency speculators aren’t the only ones ill-informed about Hong-Kong. Financial journalists — even veterans with Hong Kong market experience — clearly don’t understand the currency board system that governs the course of the HKD. For example, Jake van der Kamp, a columnist at the South China Morning Post and former analyst at Morgan Stanley, recently fanned the speculative flames by penning a provocative column titled “From a Currency Board to a Banana Republic Manipulation.” This brought out a response from John Greenwood, the architect of Hong Kong’s currency board system, installed in 1983, and a member of the Currency Board Committee of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. Greenwood politely took van der Kamp to the woodshed and told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, and van der Kamp had the good sense to admit that he had sinned.

So, why is there so much confusion about exchange rates — particularly fixed exchange rates delivered by currency board systems, like Hong Kong’s? To answer that question, we must develop a taxonomy of exchange-rate regimes and their characteristics. As shown in the accompanying table, there are three types of regimes: floating, fixed, and pegged.

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In fixed and floating rate regimes the monetary authority aims for only one target at a time. Although floating and fixed rates appear dissimilar, they are members of the same free-market family. Both operate without exchange controls and are free-market mechanisms for balance-of-payments adjustments. With a floating rate, a central bank sets a monetary policy, but the exchange rate is on autopilot. In consequence, the monetary base is determined domestically by a central bank. With a fixed rate, there are two possibilities: either a currency board sets the exchange rate and the money supply is on autopilot, or a country is “dollarized” and uses the U.S. dollar, or another foreign currency, as its own and the money supply is again on autopilot.

Under a fixed-rate regime, a country’s monetary base is determined by the balance of payments, which move in a one-to-one correspondence with changes in its foreign reserves. With either a floating or a fixed rate, there cannot be conflicts between monetary and exchange rate policies, and balance-of-payments crises cannot rear their ugly heads. Floating and fixed-rate regimes are inherently equilibrium systems in which market forces act to automatically rebalance financial flows and avert balance-of- payments crises.

Most people use “fixed” and “pegged” as interchangeable or nearly interchangeable terms for exchange rates. In reality, they are very different exchange-rate arrangements. Pegged-rate systems are those in which the monetary authority aims for more than one target at a time. They come in many varieties: crawling pegs, adjustable pegs, bands, managed floats, and more. Pegged systems often employ exchange controls and are not free-market mechanisms for international balance-of-payments adjustments. They are inherently disequilibrium systems, lacking an automatic adjustment mechanism. They require a central bank to manage both the exchange rate and monetary policy. With a pegged rate, the monetary base contains both domestic and foreign components.

Unlike floating and fixed rates, pegged rates invariably result in conflicts between monetary and exchange rate policies. For example, when capital inflows become “excessive” under a pegged system, a central bank often attempts to sterilize the ensuing increase in the foreign component of the monetary base by selling bonds, reducing the domestic component of the base. And when outflows become “excessive,” a central bank often attempts to offset the decrease in the foreign component of the monetary base by buying bonds, increasing the domestic component of the monetary base. Balance-of-payments crises erupt as a central bank begins to offset more and more of the reduction in the foreign component of the monetary base with domestically created base money. When this occurs, it is only a matter of time before currency speculators spot the contradictions between exchange rate and monetary policies and force a devaluation, interest-rate increases, the imposition of exchange controls, or all three.

As the accompanying monetary composition chart makes clear, China’s RMB falls into the pegged regime category. The RMB’s monetary base has foreign and domestic components that move around. In addition, China imposes capital controls. So, the RMB bears might be smelling blood.

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That’s not the case with the HKD, which is linked to the USD via a currency board. As such, the board’s monetary base (reserve money) must be backed by foreign reserves — 100%, or slightly more. The accompanying chart shows that this so-called currency board “backing (or ‘stock’) rule” is strictly followed in Hong Kong. The “flow rule” — that reserve money must change in a one-to-one relationship with changes in the currency board’s foreign exchange reserves — is also strictly followed in Hong Kong (see the accompanying chart).

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There has never been a system that followed currency board rules — like Hong Kong’s — that has been broken by a speculative attack. And Hong Kong’s will not be the first. Indeed, its currency board is operating exactly as it should, which is why it can’t be broken.

So, what will happen? When the U.S. Fed embraced quantitative easing, USDs flowed into Hong Kong. Now that the Fed has started to notch up the Fed funds rate, the flows have reversed. In consequence, the currency board is automatically tightening up, and both broad money and credit to the private sector are decelerating and are below their trend rates (see the accompanying chart).

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This is just what is supposed to happen. We should expect a slow-down in the Hong Kong economy. But, the HKD will remain rock solid.

Steve H. Hanke is a professor of Applied Economics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

It’s Time to Admit That American Intervention Can’t Fix Syria

Emma Ashford

As the Syrian civil war moves inexorably toward a sixth year of conflict, calls for US intervention are once again on the upswing. Advocates of increased intervention in the conflict focus on Syria’s humanitarian tragedies, or on the need to oppose Russia. Underlying most of their arguments is the simple assumption that American intervention could improve the lives of Syria’s citizens and bring a swift end to the conflict, if we only had the political and moral will to do so.

Yet that assumption is fundamentally mistaken. Further US intervention has little chance of succeeding, and in fact is far more likely to worsen the conflict.

The desire to lower the horrifying humanitarian costs of Syria’s bloody civil war is laudable. More than a quarter million Syrians have died in the past five years, and more than 6.6 million have been internally displaced. The United Nations estimates that at least 18 towns or cities are effectively besieged, preventing their civilians from receiving supplies of life’s basic necessities.

The situation has only been worsened by Russia’s recent entry into the conflict. As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently noted, only 620,000 Syrians were able to receive aid from UN-coordinated aid convoys last year, compared with 2.9 million in 2013.

No form of US intervention can fix Syria’s fundamental problems: fragmentation, internecine infighting, and the utter lack of any unified anti-Assad coalition.

Other reasons cited in favor of intervention are similarly comprehensible. While it would be foolish in the extreme to intervene in Syria’s civil war simply to oppose Russia, it is true that facts on the ground can shape diplomatic outcomes. Progress against either Assad or extremist groups by a strong US-supported rebel group on the ground could improve our leverage in the Geneva process. Meanwhile, the potential for Syria’s turmoil and resultant refugee crisis to be regionally destabilizing remains a strategic concern for American policymakers.

Yet whatever the motives, the core of each pro-intervention argument is the idea that further American involvement — whether in the form of support for rebel groups, the creation of a no-fly zone, or even the use of American forces inside Syria — has the potential to substantially improve the situation inside Syria.

It’s an easy assumption to make; after all, America’s military is the strongest in the world, and our involvement has reshaped various conflicts over the past 50 years, in ways both good and bad. Yet in the context of Syria’s intractable political rivalries and geopolitical realities, it is a mistaken assumption. US intervention is likely only to aggravate and lengthen Syria’s conflict.

Put bluntly, the US military can’t fix Syria.

Take, for instance, the frequently proposed idea of creating a no-fly or humanitarian safe zone where civilians could receive humanitarian aid and protection from indiscriminate bombardment. On the face of it, this sounds appealing. Unfortunately, there are simply too many practical obstacles to successful implementation.

A safe zone that covers the area 10 to 20 kilometers south of the Turkish border — a common suggestion — wouldn’t actually protect the civilians most at risk from bombardment, while expanding the zone south toward civilians in Aleppo would bring US forces into direct confrontation with Russian air forces and possibly even Syrian air defenses.

Then there’s the problem of differentiating civilians from rebel fighters. Without a sizable ground force, it will be impossible to prevent Syria’s many armed factions from using the zone as a training ground or safe haven.

Troops from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or other regional allies, whose governments have backed rebel groups against the Assad regime for years, even have an incentive to allow rebel groups to use the zone in this way. The inevitable attacks conducted on Russian or Syrian government troops using the safe zone as a base would encourage Russia to retaliate, dramatically increasing the likelihood of direct conflict between US and Russian air forces.

Worst, even if all these obstacles were overcome — an extremely unlikely scenario where Russia offers no resistance and the US contributes a large-scale troop presence on the ground to enforce the zone — a no-fly or humanitarian zone wouldn’t actually solve Syria’s underlying problems. Instead, it would create Russian and American zones of interest, broadening the conflict and prolonging it perhaps indefinitely.

In fact, lengthening the conflict by creating a military stalemate is a major flaw in most proposals for further US intervention, including giving more arms to Syrian opposition groups. Again, there are many reasons to be wary of further arming the rebels, including the risk that the weapons will fall into extremist hands. But the biggest problem remains simply that more arms will not bring an end to the conflict. Even a strong, united opposition would struggle to effectively take on Assad and his Russian backers, and the opposition is anything but united.

It is hard to overstate the extent to which Syria has become a war of all against all, including fighting even between Syria’s main Kurdish and Sunni opposition groups. The weak and fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition has become increasingly visible as it becomes apparent that even groups receiving US backing are now beginning to fight each other. As various sarcastic headlines have noted, at this point we are effectively in a proxy war with ourselves. The opposition will not suddenly and miraculously work together if given more weapons; such aid will only increase the duration and brutality of the conflict.

No form of US intervention can fix Syria’s fundamental problems: fragmentation, internecine infighting, and the utter lack of any unified anti-Assad coalition. And though some observers have focused on Russia’s recent military gains to argue that US military force can succeed in Syria, their analogy is flawed. Russia has a defined ally —ground forces in the form of Syrian government troops and Iranian militias — and a clear goal, to reassert regime control.

The United States has none of these things. Russian success has also flowed from its indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, a brutally effective technique that has allowed the regime to retake territory. Thankfully, the American military’s rules of engagement do not permit such barbaric actions.

Even the most extreme and unrealistic option — a massive ground invasion by US troops to topple the Assad regime and defeat ISIS — cannot create a coherent Syrian state acceptable to the people of Syria and to our squabbling allies. Such an invasion would require a decade-long occupation by US forces. Insurgency, instability, and the many other failures of state building in Iraq and Afghanistan would undoubtedly be repeated in Syria, magnified by the fissures of five years of brutal civil war.

The risks associated with further US intervention in Syria are significant, including the potential for a direct conflict with Russia, or for broader regional war. Yet in focusing on the large potential costs, debates on US-Syria policy too often overlook the fact that further intervention will provide few if any benefits. It is easy to critique the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria and the pursuit of diplomacy over intervention that has allowed Russia to occupy a dominant role in Syria’s future.

Given a choice between pursuing a flawed diplomatic settlement now on Russia’s terms, or the potential for a marginally better settlement following several more years of intervention and bloody conflict, the administration has consistently chosen to accept the lesser of two evils. This focus on diplomacy backed by humanitarian efforts may also have a low probability of ending the Syrian civil war, at least in the near term. But unlike most of the alternatives, the White House’s current strategy can help lay the groundwork for a future diplomatic settlement. And unlike the alternatives, it will do so without ratcheting up the conflict inside Syria.

In choosing this approach, the president and his advisers seem to have understood what many of their critics have not: Increased US intervention has the potential to prolong and worsen Syria’s civil war, but not necessarily to improve it.

Emma Ashford is a visiting fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Sanders, Clinton, and Their Job-Killing Agendas

Michael D. Tanner

You can’t love employees but hate employers, as Senator Angus King of Maine once said.

This fact has been obscured by the circus that has become the Republican nominating process, but on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been running one of the most anti-business election campaigns of any major party in modern history. In fact, hardly a day goes by without the Democratic candidates offering another idea that seems almost perversely designed to kill jobs.

Start with a simple economic fact. Businesses cannot — at least for long — operate at a loss. That means, among other things, as Greg Mankiw, chairman of the economics department at Harvard, points out, that “the wage a worker earns, measured in units of output, equals the amount of output the worker can produce.” In non-economist speak, you can’t pay more for a worker than the value that worker provides. Pay, in this case, means the full cost of employing that worker: wages, insurance, training, retirement benefits, and so on.

Hardly a day goes by without the Democratic candidates offering another idea that seems almost perversely designed to kill jobs.

But both Clinton and Sanders seem determined to order businesses to do exactly that. For instance, Clinton has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour — a hike of more than 60 percent over the current federal level — while supporting state and local efforts to go even further. Recently, she came out in support of efforts in Los Angeles and New York State to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Of course, that’s not enough for Sanders. He wants the federal government to impose a $15-an-hour minimum across the board.

And it doesn’t stop there. Sanders would also require businesses to provide twelve weeks of paid family leave, two weeks minimum of vacation, and at least five days of paid sick leave per year. Clinton has also called for paid sick leave and some type of paid family leave. Both candidates also back the Obama administration’s push to expand the number of workers who would qualify for overtime pay. And both would even have the federal government involve itself in how businesses schedule work hours, demanding fixed schedules and limiting the ability of employers to change shifts or reschedule employees.

Maybe all this is a secret plan to support the robot industry. After all, even President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers recently reported that the jobs most susceptible to being replaced by automation are concentrated at the low end of the wage scale — precisely those jobs that would be adversely affected by a mandated increase in labor costs.

Remember “card check,” the union organizing gimmick that the administration unsuccessfully pushed during Obama’s first term? Both Clinton and Sanders were, unsurprisingly, co-sponsors of the legislation in Congress, and both still back it today. Both have also said they would take other steps to increase the clout of organized labor.

In case any businesses manage to survive this onslaught of new mandates, both Sanders and Clinton want to hit them with new taxes. Clinton, who once said, “Don’t let anyone tell you that businesses create jobs,” has been vague about exactly what business taxes she would impose, though she continually calls for businesses and the wealthy to pay their “fair share.” She supports legislation to tax U.S. corporations on their foreign earnings and impose an “exit tax” on businesses that shift operations overseas. She would also limit deductions for retirement accounts and impose a 4 percent surtax on high incomes in a way that might fall on many limited partnerships and Subchapter S corporations.

That’s small change, of course, for Sanders. As part of his health-care plan, for instance, he would impose a 6.2 percent payroll tax on employers, which would cost them at least $630 billion per year. Yes, that is per year. Sanders also wants a 0.2 percent employer payroll tax (matched by employees) to fund a family- and medical-leave trust fund. This is on top of his call to subject earnings above $250,000 to Social Security payroll taxes. Hiring workers under a Sanders administration would be really, really expensive.

Beyond payroll taxes, Sanders would eliminate several tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal companies, among others. He would also end the deferral of income from foreign subsidiaries and would change several tax rules to curb corporate inversions (the relocating of a corporation’s legal domicile to a lower-tax country), while limiting use of the foreign tax credit.

And none of this counts the tax increases that both Bernie and Hillary want to impose on the high earners who manage or invest in businesses. And it doesn’t consider how the trade barriers favored by both the Democratic candidates (and Donald Trump) would drive up the cost of parts and materials that American businesses rely on.

Big business, small business, or medium-sized business, the Democrats just plain don’t like you. Unless, of course, you are a business that is important to a key voting constituency, in which case they have a subsidy for you.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, Hillary’s plans would lower GDP by 1 percent — at a time when we have been stuck in slow growth for years — reduce wages by nearly 1 percent, and lead to roughly 300,000 fewer full-time-equivalent jobs. And that’s the good news. Bernie’s plans would reduce GDP by a whopping 9.5 percent, reduce wages by 4.3 percent, and result in nearly 6 million fewer jobs. That’s Venezuelan territory.

According to a new AP poll released this week, an astounding 81 percent of voters put jobs at the top of their list of priorities. The Democrats’ anti-job agenda presents a tremendous opportunity for whoever the eventual Republican nominee turns out to be. But taking advantage of this opportunity will require the GOP to get serious, stop the gratuitous name-calling, scapegoating of ethnic groups, and other juvenile antics, and begin talking about real issues.

If it does not, we may look back at our current moribund economy as the good old days.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis.

Watching the Education Policy Watchmen

Jason Bedrick

Earlier this week, respected researchers from two universities released a four-part study on the effects of Louisiana’s school voucher program. Yet even though the researchers provided a layman’s summary of their findings, media coverage of their study varied significantly.

Even though the researchers of a four-part study on the effects of Louisiana’s school voucher program provided a layman’s summary of their findings, media coverage of their study varied significantly.

What makes for better or worse coverage of new research? Well, first the reporter needs to tell us what the study found and why it’s important. She should also provide context for those findings. Are they consistent with or divergent from the findings of previous research? Particularly in the latter case, good reporting will also explore the underlying causes of the findings, especially as the study’s authors understand them. And since reporters rarely have a background in policy research, they should consult with multiple experts who have different views about how to interpret the study’s findings or what their implications are. This being the 21st century, online reporting should contain a direct link to the study so that readers can easily access it to learn more. Finally, because the “tl;dr” crowd often sees only the headline, the headline should be accurate. (Note: editors usually choose the headline, not the reporters.)

Based on those criteria, I came up with the following, quick-and-dirty rating system to determine the quality of reporting on new research. As with other rating systems, results will vary depending on the weight given each criterion. But like speed limits, although the precise levels of points assigned are ultimately arbitrary (why not 67.5 miles per hour?), I nevertheless believe they reasonably reflect the relative importance of each criterion.

  • Reporting on findings (25 points): Accurately describing all the study’s major findings, positive and negative.
  • Reporting on previous research (25 points): Accurately describing the previous research to provide proper context for understanding these findings.
  • Reporting on causes of results (20 points): Accurately describing the authors’ understanding of what caused the results they found.
  • Consulting experts (15 points): Quoting at least two different education policy experts with differing views.
  • Linked to study (10 points): Linking to study so readers can easily access it.
  • Headline (5 points): Using a headline that accurately captures the study’s main finding or importance.

If you like my rating system: great! You are clearly a wise and discriminating reader, and probably quite good looking too. If not, you’re encouraged to come up with your own weights and/or criteria in the comments section. While you work on that, the rest of us will get to the grading.

What’s needed to earn full credit on the last three criteria is obvious, but here’s what I’m looking for on the first three:

  • The study had four main findings: the vouchers had a negative impact on students’ performance on tests (particularly math) although there was some improvement in the second year of the program; there’s suggestive evidence that the competitive pressure from the voucher program improved the performance of public schools; the voucher program reduced racial segregation; and there was no difference between voucher and non-voucher students on several measures of non-cognitive skills. Since the last one was a null finding, I won’t deduct points for its omission.
  • Previous research has overwhelmingly found small but statistically significant positive effects on both voucher student performance and on the performance of students remaining at their district schools. Some studies have found no discernible difference, but no voucher study found any harm until a study on the first year of Louisiana’s voucher program was released last month.
  • The study’s authors provide four possible causes for the negative impact on test scores: 1) private schools’ curricula were not aligned to the state test, so they are still undergoing a period of adjustment; 2) private schools were not prepared to take in so many students switching from low-performing district schools who were already far behind; 3) the success of recent reforms of the public schools made private schools look relatively worse; 4) due to the high level of regulations, most private schools opted not to participate in the program, leaving only those lower-performing schools that were the most desperate for funding.

For comparison, see the tone and substance of the two universities press releases:

The Times-Picayune of Greater New Orleans (Danielle Dreilinger): 70 / 100 points, Grade C-

  • Reporting on findings (15/25): Covers all major findings, but with some errors. For example, the article says “the private schools that took vouchers became more racially segregated.” Actually, that’s true for only slightly more than half of the private school transfers. Moreover, the article does not make it clear that there was improvement in the second year, stating only “the scholarship students hadn’t recovered even to where they began in mathematics.”
  • Reporting on previous research (15/25): The article did note that “most studies have found mildly positive results for small voucher programs” but also claimed that “Louisiana’s program is much larger.” That is not accurate. Louisiana has about 7,000 voucher students today, but during the study there were fewer than 1,200. Several previous studies examined the impact on students participating in comparableor larger voucher programs.
  • Reporting on causes of results (10/20): The article cites the authors’ explanations for the causes of their findings, but with some errors. For example, the article says, “The more prestigious and expensive private schools generally do not take vouchers.” Actually, the study says nothing about the relative tuition at participating or non-participating schools. Moreover, the article omits the possibility raised in the study that “extensive regulations placed on the program by the state” drove away private schools.
  • Consulting experts (15/15): Numerous experts cited.
  • Linked to study (10/10): Check.
  • Headline (5/5): Accurate.

U.S. News & World Report (Lauren Camera): 33 / 100 points, Grade F-

  • Reporting on findings (15/25): The article noted two of the three significant findings (no mention was made of segregation), but it did not clearly explain that the test scores improved in the second year, stating only: “During their second year in private school, the downward trend continued in math, but rebounded some in reading.” That’s not quite accurate. The trend was upward in both math and reading, albeit still negative relative to the control group (and not statistically significant for reading).
  • Reporting on previous research (10/25): Besides the other study on Louisiana’s voucher program, the article made no mention of the prior research on the impact of school vouchers on participants. The article did note that “existing research generally has found modestly positive or insignificant competitive effects of school voucher programs on student achievement in public schools,” though it was quick to note that opponents “counter that they harm public education by diverting funds from public to private schools.” In other words, the article countered evidence of a positive impactwith a mere assertion of a negative impact. In reality, it is the evidence that contradicts the assertion.
  • Reporting on causes of results (0/20): There was no discussion at all concerning the causes of the negative impact on voucher students’ test scores.
  • Consulting experts (0/15): No outside experts cited.
  • Linked to study (8/10): Linked to researcher’s website, but not the study itself.
  • Headline (0/5): The headline “Evidence Mounts Against Louisiana Voucher Program” is editorializing masquerading as reporting. The studies showed a positive impact on racial integration and public school performance, and although still negative, the results improved in year two. This is hardly evidence “mounting against” the program, though certainly school choice supporters should be troubled by the results.

The Associated Press (Kevin McGill)30 / 100 points, Grade F-

  • Reporting on findings (25/25): The article accurately discussed the three main findings, including the improved performance in the second year.
  • Reporting on previous research (0/25): The article made no mention of the prior research on the impact of school vouchers on participants or public schools.
  • Reporting on causes of results (0/20): There was no discussion at all concerning the causes of the negative impact on voucher students’ test scores.
  • Consulting experts (0/15): No outside experts cited.
  • Linked to study (0/10): No links to the original study. This may not be totally fair to the AP, which does not appear to include links in its articles. It is a wire service after all. But again, this being the 21st century, there’s really no excuse. No points for you!
  • Headline (5/5): The media outlets that run AP stories generally pick their own headlines, so it’s not totally fair to grade them on this, but a quick survey of headlines found on Google shows the media outlets tended to summarize what was written in the first paragraph, which was accurate.

As you can see from the above, several major media outlets covering the study left much to be desired. Without the proper context, readers will have no idea that the Louisiana voucher program had both positive and negative effects, no idea that the negative effect were an anomaly among the large number of voucher studies, and no idea what might have caused that anomaly. In other words, when journalists fail to provide the proper context, their readers come away misinformed.

And thanks to the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, most of us don’t even realize it.

Jason Bedrick is an education-policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Feds Must Match Body Camera Rhetoric with Action

Matthew Feeney

Last Saturday U.S. marshals in New Mexico shot and killed 23-year-old Edgar Alvarado in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Alvarado’s neighbor, murder suspect George Bond, lived a few trailers down from him and was arrested on Saturday. The marshals involved in the shooting were not wearing body cameras, and it may be years before Alvarado’s family and friends have crucial questions about his death answered. The lack of body camera footage is worrying, and is yet another example of the Obama administration not matching its rhetoric with action.

Following the November 2014 protests in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson over the death of Michael Brown, the Obama administration proposed spending $75 million over three years on police body cameras. The Department of Justice (DOJ) released a body camera toolkit, held meetings with policy experts, and awarded millions of dollars-worth of body camera grants to law enforcement agencies across the country.

Body cameras by themselves will not produce desired reforms. Such reforms require tools like body cameras to be governed by desirable policies that increase accountability while protecting privacy rights.

However, despite the Obama administration positioning itself on the side of increased transparency and accountability in law enforcement, its behavior since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri ought to concern criminal justice reformers.

While it is true that the DOJ has been awarding body camera grants to law enforcement agencies, these grants are clearly not contingent on agencies implementing policies that would improve accountability and transparency. For instance, one recipient of federal body camera funds, the LAPD, requires officers involved in deadly shootings to view body camera footage before making a statement. Body cameras by themselves will not produce desired reforms. Such reforms require tools like body cameras to be governed by desirable policies that increase accountability while protecting privacy rights.

Not only is the Obama administration awarding body camera grants to police departments with worrying policies, it is also failing to outfit federal law enforcement officers with body cameras. Last year, my colleague Patrick Eddington and I noted that Customs and Border Protection, the country’s largest law enforcement agency, was needlessly delaying the deployment of body cameras.

In addition, while the Obama administration supports more police officers wearing body cameras, it does not allow local officers working with U.S. marshals on task forces to wear body cameras. The message to local police departments is bizarre and contradictory.

Alvarado’s friends and family undoubtedly have questions body camera footage would help answer. Perhaps most importantly, body camera footage would have revealed whether Alvarado posed a threat that justified the use of lethal force to the marshals who killed him.

There are legitimate privacy concerns associated with body cameras. But, these can be adequately addressed. It is time for the federal government to implement policies that outfit federal officers with body cameras while promoting accountability and protecting privacy.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Why Partisan Fights over Supreme Court Nominees Are a Good Thing

Trevor Burrus

With Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death, we are preparing for a new fight over the meaning of the Senate giving “advice and consent” on the president’s nominees. It’s time that we look at that those words in context of what we will be fighting over—that is, an appointment to the body that increasingly plays a central role in our citizens’ lives but over which they have no direct democratic control. In other words, it’s time to generally endorse, for both parties, long, bitter, and nakedly partisan fights over Supreme Court nominees.

A little history can help us figure out what the words “advice and consent” might mean. In August, 1789, when the government was only a few months old, President George Washington nominated Benjamin Fishbourn for naval officer for the Port of Savannah, Georgia. For the first time, the Senate did not confirm a presidential nominee.

The reasons for the rejection were nakedly political. Fishbourn was not the favorite of James Gunn, a senator from Georgia, who wanted the post to go to a closer political ally. Washington was a little peeved, and he responded to the rejection with a letter to the Senate that teemed with anger—or, at least, an overly stuffy 18th-century form of anger. Washington wrote that if the “propriety of Nominations appear questionable to you” then perhaps the Senate could “communicate that circumstance to me” and then he could have the “pleasure [to] lay before you…the information which led me to make [the nomination].”

People lambaste “playing politics,” but “playing politics” serves a purpose.

In the early days of our republic, there was a glorious improvisational aspect to the first government of the United States under the new Constitution. The Constitution commanded certain things, but other things were quite vague. No traditions existed as to where people should sit, who speaks first, and other matters of governmental decorum. On nominees and treaties, the Constitution instructs the Senate to give “advice and consent,” but that could mean anything from rubber-stamping to sitting down with the president to confer about every single nominee and treaty.

And, in fact, Washington did try to confer with the Senate on an Indian treaty only a few weeks after the Fishbourn rejection. He marched into Federal Hall in New York City (Congress met in New York until 1790, and then in Philadelphia from 1790-1800), and convened the senators to discuss the treaty. He sat in Vice President John Adams’s chair while the Senate considered the provisions. Little progress was made, however, and the Senate eventually asked for more time, to which Washington angrily said, “This defeats every purpose of my being here!”

After that, Washington was reticent to engage the Senate so directly, and the Senate more or less adopted the concept of “senatorial courtesy” in approving presidential nominees, including Supreme Court nominees.

“Advice and consent” is vague enough that it could mean many things without violating the Constitution. Had Washington continued the tradition of conferring in person with the Senate, then perhaps today we wouldn’t have a tradition of “senatorial courtesy,” but something more like a tradition of “substantial Senate input” into nominees.

Now that a crucial Supreme Court seat is open, we should create a new tradition of “substantial Senate input.” With a lifetime appointment and few credible threats to their power once seated, a justice can spend 30 plus years steering the course of our country, whether it is to the left or to the right.

This time the Republicans are going to the mat to fight the president tooth and nail, but next time it will be the Democrats. If there’s one hard and fast rule in Washington, it’s that once one party invents a new type of partisan chicanery, it will eventually be used by both parties.

People lambaste “playing politics,” but “playing politics” serves a purpose. We “play politics” for two years before every presidential election, because choosing a person for that powerful office demands a long, drawn-out process wherein the candidates are properly vetted. “Playing politics” is what happens when different ideologies clash and a winner must emerge.

Similar ideological differences exist on the Supreme Court. Both right-wing and left-wing jurists have largely adopted jurisprudential theories that broadly endorse their policy preferences. This is not to say that modern judicial philosophies have been reduced to pure outcome-oriented judging, but there is a strong alignment between policy preferences and jurisprudential philosophies, and presidents know this.

The most important characteristics of Supreme Court nominees are no longer legal brilliance and impartial judging, if they ever were. Rather, prospective justices must be 1) young, so as to influence the bench for as long as possible; and 2) ideologically predictable. Neither party is looking for an impartial justice.

So, should we endorse the idea of a “nonpartisan” nomination process—the tradition of “senatorial courtesy”—as a matter of good governance? This is, after all, a lifetime appointment to a de facto super legislature, and the people—not just those who voted for a given president—should probably have some say in who sits on that super legislature. For vulnerable Republicans, dogged opposition to the nominee could cost their seat, which seems to be a kind of democratic feedback we should endorse.

President Obama can, and should, exercise his right to submit a nominee, and the Senate can, and should, fully use their prerogative to give “advice and consent,” which certainly includes withholding that consent. Republicans should not say that they will not approve any nominee; rather, they should say that they are fully willing to approve a nominee amenable to both sides. 

And perhaps Obama should take a cue from President Washington and march down Pennsylvania Avenue to ask for the Senate’s advice. 

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies and managing editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review.

Despite Public Outrage, Bail Reform Still Needed in New York City

Randal John Meyer

In October 2014, New York City erupted in outrage at the story of Kalief Browder. Browder spent three years in confinement awaiting trial for stealing a backpack. Browder—who was 16 when he was first sent to Rikers—tragically committed suicide in 2015. He was held at Rikers because, like many of the City’s most vulnerable residents, he could not post his $3,000 bail.

Money bail, even when set in the hundreds of dollars, is a hurdle that keeps many of the City’s least well-off residents behind bars—awaiting trial—for lengthy periods. A 2010 Human Rights Watch report on the City’s jail system notes that 87% of those who had bail set at $1,000 or less could not pay at their initial appearance, resulting in detention. According to former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, “[f]ar too many individuals awaiting trial who pose no risk to public safety are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to post the bail amount set by the courts.”

Despite calls for the City to shorten pretrial stays and to decrease the number affected, over the last decade, the average period of pretrial confinement in City jails has lengthened. Moreover, reform initiatives announced through the Mayor’s Office fall far short of helping individuals who aren’t flight risks but can’t afford money bail to get out of Rikers.

City officials need to make more aggressive efforts, such as expanding underutilized pretrial supervision programs to more low-to-moderate-risk defendants and eliminating money bail in most, if not all, misdemeanor cases.

NYC Criminal Justice Agency data notes that in 2003-04, the average length of pretrial detention was 18 days for accused misdemeanants and 51 days forfelons. In fiscal year 2015, according to (non-disaggregated) informationacquired by the Cato Institute through Freedom of Information Act requests, the average incarceration period for all pretrial detainees at Rikers Island was 55.6 days, up from 54.1 days in 2014. The median detention period, seven days, remains unchanged since 2004.

Notably, 55.04% of fiscal year 2015 pretrial confinements involved African Americans, totaling 29,223 detainees. While this is not necessarily indicative of racism in policing, reform would undoubtedly help alleviate the burden money bail places on the city’s African American community.

For most misdemeanors cases, releasing on recognizance with pretrial supervision is a better option than money bail or incarceration because the vast majority of misdemeanants are not flight risks or otherwise dangerous to society at large. As Elizabeth Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justicenotes, “[m]ost people—93 percent in New York City—who are released without bail or other conditions before trial return to court within 30 days of their scheduled court date.”

According to the same Criminal Justice Agency data, by a conservative estimate, nearly a third of felony detainees were not flight risks, and another 17% were low-to-moderate risks to society at large. In those cases, the Agency adds, supervised release or money bail would be more appropriate than custody—a policy that would help reduce the City’s jail population.

Pretrial custody directly affects low-income individuals’ ability to maintain employment. The longer the period that someone is in jail—with the financial and personal pressures imprisonment imposes—the more inclined that individual is to accept a plea bargain regardless of the strength of the state’s case. Additionally, pretrial confinement is associated with more severe case outcomes, particularly in sentencing.

On July 8, 2015, Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s Office announced a $17.8 million initiative to reform the city’s bail process. While the Mayor’s initiative is laudable, reducing the population at Rikers will take bolder steps.

City officials estimate that eliminating cash bail for defendants under the [Mayor’s] program will cut the average daily population at Rikers—which is about 10,000—by about 200,” reposts the New York Times Yet, there are thousands of individuals awaiting trial on Rikers Island on an average day. The Independent Budget Office’s 2014 Budget Options report notes that “[a]t any given time two-thirds of the inmates in Department of Correction (DOC) custody are pretrial detainees.” In fiscal year 2015, 53,097 inmates were admitted as detainees and discharged from City Department of Corrections facilities. A reduction of 200 from the daily average is not enough.

After over a decade with little progress, City officials need to make more aggressive efforts, such as expanding underutilized pretrial supervision programs to more low-to-moderate-risk defendants and eliminating money bail in most, if not all, misdemeanor cases. State Senator Michael Gianaris recently proposed such an effort.

Ending cases like Browder’s takes more than a drop in the bucket.

Randal John Meyer is a legal associate at the Cato Institute and a graduate of Brooklyn Law School.

Scalia and the Supreme Court: What the Justice Would Want Now

Roger Pilon

After the tragic and untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the nation has before it the question of whether to fill his seat now or only after the people have spoken in November. On that question, those of us who knew him and knew his deep respect for the place of politics in our constitutional order know that he would have been the first to remind us that the president may nominate his replacement, but the Senate’s power to consent, or not, is equally important and equally to be respected.

Far more important than that immediate question, however, is whether Justice Scalia’s legacy of respect for the written Constitution and the limited government it authorizes will continue to animate the nation’s highest court, or whether instead the Court will join the political branches as handmaiden and move us ever closer to the vision President Obama and his party have been pushing now for nearly eight decades.

Given the profound implications for the nation’s future of this president’s filling this seat, it is imperative, especially after the people spoke so clearly in 2014, that they be allowed to speak once more about our future before this seat is filled.

We need only look to those of Mr. Obama’s persuasion who would succeed him for the particulars of that vision. Driven by identity politics and class warfare, and informed by a medieval understanding of economics, they would make America look like the rest of the world—a world from which so many of us have fled. They rail against our present economic straits, especially for the young, yet would only double down on the very policies that have brought us here and so endanger our future. Answering always the same, their solution for government created problems is more government programs.

Justice Scalia had little patience for that vision, but he was a study in judicial evolution. He arrived at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1982 a staunch friend of the free market but also a strict disciple of judicial restraint, the view then animating conservatives that judges should defer to the political branches in all but the clearest cases of constitutional abuse. Thus, in a famous debate two years later with his former University of Chicago colleague, Richard Epstein, over whether judges should better protect economic liberty than they had done in recent decades, Scalia argued that that should happen only if facilitated by the creation of “a constitutional ethos of economic liberty,” which he did not see. Rising to the occasion, Epstein pressed Scalia “to pursue, energetically, the tasks that our Constitution assigns to him.”

And so the issues were joined in a struggle that had begun a decade earlier at Chicago and would continue to the present—between conservatives urging judicial restraint, against the excesses of the Warren and Burger Courts, and libertarians urging judges to engage more fully in enforcing the Madisonian vision of constitutionally limited government. As that debate evolved increasingly in the direction of greater engagement, so too did many of the judges Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 appointed, including Justice Scalia.

In 1993, for example, Scalia joined us at Cato for an informal luncheon discussion where I asked him if the Court was ever going to revive the doctrine of enumerated powers as we’d been urging—the bedrock principle that Congress has only limited, enumerated powers, the rest belonging to the states or the people, as the Tenth Amendment says. “Oh we lost that battle a long time ago,” he responded. Yet two years later the Court held, for the first time in 58 years, that Congress had exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce when it enacted the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1990—and Scalia was on the right side of that 5-4 decision. And two years after that he would write the 5-4 opinion holding that Congress had no power to dragoon state officials into carrying out federal functions.

Justice Scalia’s federalism was not entirely consistent. Nor did he ever wholly embrace the vision of constitutional liberty that many of us have urged. He is famous, however, for holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. That again was a 5-4 decision, as often were his property rights rulings. Thus, he held that South Carolina could not provide its citizens with various goods by prohibiting a man from building on his property, the result of which was to wipe out the million dollars he’d paid for it. Shockingly, four justices would have allowed that—the same four, ideologically speaking, who would have allowed government restrictions on religious liberty, school choice, campaign finance, and so much more.

Today, the complaint about an activist Court more often comes from progressives who see that branch as impeding their plans for ever more government. Mr. Obama should know: more than any other administration, his has lost before the Court more than half the time, many of the most important cases by a single vote. Is it any wonder that he wants to fill Justice Scalia’s seat as quickly as possible, or that he is already trying to shame Senate Republicans against a filibuster, the very tactic he himself employed against then-Judge Samuel Alito? And that was not a lame-duck year.

Given the profound implications for the nation’s future of this president’s filling this seat, it is imperative, especially after the people spoke so clearly in 2014, that they be allowed to speak once more about our future before this seat is filled.

Roger Pilon is vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, founding director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, and publisher of the “Cato Supreme Court Review.”

Why Candidates Prefer Bashing Trade to Kissing Babies

Daniel J. Ikenson

In the presidential debates and on the campaign trail, U.S. trade policy has taken a beating. Trump would slap a 45% tax on all imports from China. Sanders claims that trade agreements have been “a disaster for the American worker.” Cruz perpetuates the myth that Congress has ceded its authority on trade to President Obama. And Clinton would oppose a trade agreement she helped craft.

Somewhere along the line, bashing trade surpassed kissing babies as the gesture of choice among Oval Office seekers. With scorn coming from Democratic and Republican candidates alike, it is tempting to conclude that prospects for trade liberalization anytime soon look awfully bleak. But are they really?

Trade is in the cross-hairs in 2016 because—unlike any election in 24 years—a major trade agreement (indeed, the largest preferential trade agreement in U.S. history) is being debated and possibly considered for ratification by the U.S. Congress. Accordingly, business, labor and other interest groups have pricked up their ears to listen to what the candidates are saying about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And the candidates have obliged by tailoring their messages accordingly. Unfortunately, the American public is treated mostly to half-truths and fallacies by today’s presidential aspirants. When Al Gore and Ross Perot debated the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, at least their opinions were derived from the same set of facts.

Unfortunately, the American public is treated mostly to half-truths and fallacies by today’s presidential aspirants.

Following the NAFTA vote, the bipartisan consensus for trade liberalization that had prevailed since World War II broke apart and trade policy began to take on greater significance as a rhetorical device in election campaigns. Though there were legitimate questions to ask and answer about the significance of the trade deficit, the causes of manufacturing job losses, and who was benefiting and suffering from lower tariffs, the candidates turned scapegoating into an art form, blaming Japan, then Mexico, then China for domestic woes real and imagined, while working to shield their own shortcomings from proper scrutiny.

Though President Obama and Mitt Romney repeatedly exchanged barbs about who was more “culpable” for “shipping U.S. jobs overseas” throughout the 2012 general election campaign—with neither ever attempting to explain that businesses consider a host of economic, legal and political criteria when deciding where to invest; or that companies that outsource value-added operations also tend to invest in complementary domestic value-added operations; or that 6 million Americans are employed by U.S. affiliates of foreign-headquartered companies (so-called “insourcing” operations)—trade policy tends to be prone to the most demagogic rants during primary election season. That has much to do with the fact that the primaries tend to attract voters from the extremities of both major parties, where trade and globalization are viewed with the greatest skepticism and disdain.

Democrats on the left are driven by anti-business, anti-capitalist, pro-union impulses, and are wooed by candidates who fuel the fallacies that trade agreements only benefit multinational corporations and society’s wealthiest cohorts. In reality, trade barriers hurt small businesses more than large ones and lower-income families more than higher-income ones. These candidates don’t mention that U.S. import duties are highest on apparel, footwear, foodstuffs, home furnishings and building materials, or that their opposition to trade liberalization amounts to support for high taxes on clothing, food and shelter. Of course lower-income families devote larger portions of their budgets to these basic necessities, putting import restrictions on par with Powerball as one of America’s most regressive taxes.

In 2008, Senators Obama, Clinton and Edwards tripped over one other to be cast as the trade-rules enforcer and playing-field leveler, each pledging to force U.S. trade partners back to the negotiating table to revise NAFTA and the various World Trade Organization agreements so that the rules would be “more fair” to American workers.  However, within days of taking the oath of office, President Obama phoned Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon to let them know that his words were merely campaign rhetoric. Concurrently, a few blocks away and shortly after being confirmed as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton trumpeted the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” featuring the Trans-Pacific Partnership as its economic centerpiece. So, as Barack Obama transitioned from candidate to nominee to president, and Hillary Clinton transitioned from candidate to Secretary of State, their public positions on trade similarly evolved. Eight years later, in the midst of a challenge from another upstart to her left, Clinton has been forced to disavow the TPP—for the time being.

Republicans on the right possess a nationalist, protectionist, xenophobic tendency that warms to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Though it goes without saying that Trump is unabashed and boorish in his appeal to these baser elements in the party, he is not the first Republican to tap these sentiments. Previous primary candidates Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa Caucus in 2012, and Pat Buchanan, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, both portrayed global economics as a zero-sum game with Team USA losing ground to Team Mexico and Team China.  The myth of U.S. manufacturing decline—the mistaken portrayal of declining demand for manufacturing labor as a sign of U.S. manufacturing weakness—long has nourished this nationalistic, “Us versus Them” narrative.

Despite all of this, it is difficult to imagine the president of the United States eschewing a pro-trade agenda, even in a Trump or Sanders administration. (Of course, trade policy would be the least of our worries if either were to become president.) If it’s not already in their DNAs, presidents quickly tend to embrace global perspectives and see trade policy through the prism of foreign policy, which is one of the few areas of governance where the executive branch has more constitutional authority than the legislature. Fortunately, the Congress has authority over the nuts and bolts of trade policy, which precludes a president from unilaterally raising tariffs or suspending or amending the terms of trade agreements.

Hating on trade has become a primary election pastime, but trade issues tend to be of marginal concern to voters in the general election. So, for all the squeamishness and handwringing over what the polls and early primary results mean for the direction of U.S. trade policy and, by extension, the future of U.S. global economic leadership, history suggests that cooler heads will prevail and keep the ship on a proper tack. If that fails, the U.S. Constitution will limit the scope for damage.

Daniel J. Ikenson is the director of Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.