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The Bipartisan Push to Increase Spending and the National Debt

Michael D. Tanner

Once again, we are reminded that “bipartisan” is
Washington-speak for “Hang on to your wallet.”

Democrats, Republicans, and the Trump administration have
reached a bipartisan agreement to fund the government for the rest
of the fiscal year. Much of the media is trumpeting the agreement
as proof that “both sides can work together.” Sure they can … if
the goal is to further fleece the taxpayer.

This budget deal should
once and for all put an end to the narrative that President Trump
is different because ‘he fights.’

Republicans wanted more spending for defense. Democrats wanted
more spending for domestic programs. The bipartisan answer: more
spending for everything. The agreement, which could be voted on as
early as today, includes a roughly $25 billion increase in defense
spending (including both the base defense budget and overseas
contingency spending). That represents a 3.5 percent hike over
fiscal year 2016.

The case for a big hike in defense is dubious, but even more
troubling is some $38 billion in other spending, including
significant hikes in domestic discretionary spending. President
Trump might have talked about defunding wasteful government
agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National
Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting, the National Institutes of Health, and the
Appalachian Regional Commission, but this agreement actually
increases spending for them. The budget agreement even
tosses in additional spending for “green energy” programs. There
are also the usual increases in spending for national parks,
disaster relief, global food aid, and so forth. Oh yes, the budget
also extends subsidies to insurance companies under Obamacare. And,
of course, there is no effort in this bill to reform entitlement
spending.

Taken all together, the $1.1 trillion spending agreement
increases federal spending by $63 billion over last year. Yay,
bipartisanship.

That might not seem like a lot, but we are at a point where
every additional drop of red ink counts. Last month, the
Congressional Budget Office warned that the national debt will
double as a share of the national economy by mid century.
Trillion-dollar budget deficits are expected to return within the
decade. Interest payments on the debt will rise from $270 billion
in 2017 to $768 billion in 2027. Our total indebtedness, including
the unfunded liabilities of programs such as Social Security and
Medicare, approaches $100 trillion.

There will be a tendency to blame this monument to red ink on
Paul Ryan and the congressional Republican leadership. They
certainly deserve their share. After all, they negotiated this
dog’s breakfast. They own it. Day by day, Republicans in Congress
prove that they have no intention of shrinking the size or cost of
government.

However, we shouldn’t let the president off the hook, either.
The Trump administration was fully vested in this outcome. In fact,
the president’s budget director described the budget agreement as
“a solid deal.”

The administration was desperate to avoid the optics of a
government shutdown, and President Trump has never cared about
deficits or the level of government spending. Still, this budget
deal should once and for all put an end to the narrative that
President Trump is different because “he fights.” This is a
president who cares much more about “winning” than about what he
wins.

Inevitably, we will be told that the next budget fight will be
different. Already President Trump has tweeted a threat to shut
down the government if he doesn’t get his way … in September.
Don’t count on it.

Meanwhile, he is promising to introduce his $1 trillion plan for
increased infrastructure spending within the next month. Democrats
are already suggesting that that could be the sort of bipartisan
proposal they could work with. Yep, more bipartisanship.

Funny, I don’t feel like celebrating.

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

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Obamacare’s Pre-existing Failure

Jeffrey A. Singer

President Donald Trump promised the American people that any
bill that repeals and replaces Obamacare would protect patients
with pre-existing conditions. As this is being written, Republican
“moderates” and “conservatives” are deadlocked over a repeal and
replace bill. Moderates fear that allowing states to opt out of
Obamacare’s requirement that insurance companies accept people who
are already sick and charge them no differently than their healthy
customers means people with pre-existing conditions might lose
coverage or see their premiums skyrocket in those states.

What they don’t seem to realize is that these requirements
— called “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” by
insurance professionals — are actually jeopardizing access to
quality health care for these individuals.

There’s a better way to
insure those with pre-existing health conditions.

Before Obamacare’s enactment, employer sponsored group health
plans, Medicaid and Medicare already covered people with
pre-existing conditions. And insurance bought in the individual
market was “guaranteed renewable,” meaning a person couldn’t be
dropped or see premiums go up if they suddenly developed a costly
condition, as long as they maintained continuous coverage with that
insurance company. (This was already worked into the price of the
insurance.) So only a small segment of the individual insurance
population was faced with the terrible problem of being unable to
afford — or even purchase — health insurance because of
a costly pre-existing condition. Some estimate that less than a million people
have this problem.

Several states, such as Wisconsin and Maine, set up subsidized
high-risk pools that worked well to provide these people with
insurance at a rate that was not out of reach. The market was also
responding with the appearance of
health status insurance
, a product that basically insures
younger, healthier people against the risk of someday being unable
to obtain new health insurance because they developed a
pre-existing condition. The policy then pays the premiums for their
new insurance. United Health Care already was out with such a product in 2008. Allowing
people to form association health plans, much in the way that large
companies become self-insured, would also help ameliorate this
problem by giving greater numbers of individuals access to group
health coverage.

But Obamacare made those solutions irrelevant and
unavailable.

Instead, guaranteed issue and community rating were imposed on
the entire national individual insurance market. This created some
perverse incentives. It now made sense for a young healthy person
to wait to get sick before spending precious dollars on insurance
premiums. After all, you can’t be denied coverage and the cost
would be the same. Obamacare tried to discourage this via the
“individual mandate” penalty, which had an incomplete effect.
Without the dollars of the young and healthy (who are unlikely to
use the insurance) in the pool, the insurance premiums rose —
deductibles soared as well to keep premiums from rising even
higher.

But the most harmful incentive was to spur insurance companies
into a “race
to the bottom
” when it comes to coverage of people with
serious, costly, medical conditions.

Such people don’t need the threat of a penalty to get them to
buy insurance. They want insurance. But insurance companies don’t
want them. People with these costly conditions are a big drain on
the pool of money insurers have available to pay claims. So
insurers design provider and hospital networks in such a way as to
make them unattractive. They make sure the providers and hospitals
most noted for treating some of these conditions are not a part of
their network, in hopes of chasing these potential customers to
their competitor.

This behavior all-to-often results in a tragic situation like
the one in which a colleague of mine finds herself. She’s an
anesthesiologist in solo practice and has been treated for breast
cancer. She must seek insurance on the individual market. But in
Arizona’s largest county, where she practices, there is only one
insurer left in the market. All of the others have pulled out
because they found guaranteed issue/community rating economically
unsustainable. And this lone insurer has none of the breast cancer
specialists she has been seeing within its network, nor any of the
specialized centers.

Fortunately for her, she can afford to pay out-of-pocket for her
totally out-of-network care and essentially waste her money on high
deductible, extremely expensive insurance to avoid the individual
mandate penalty. But many people who are not in my colleague’s
income bracket settle for less access to quality care.

The politicians in Congress getting cold feet on repeal and
replace must be made aware that there are better ways to protect
people with pre-existing conditions than the way Obamacare imposed
on the entire country. In fact, the current way is hurting the very
people it is intended to help.

Jeffrey A.
Singer
practices general surgery in Phoenix, AZ and is an
adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

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Bill Nye, the Misuse of Science Guy: Why Science Doesn’t Answer Public Policy Questions

Trevor Burrus

The use of science in public policy has recently been in the
news, most prominently in the “March for Science” at over 600
locations around the globe. Thousands rallied “for science,”
including climate change activists, anti-vaxxers, and those who are
either for or against GMOs, not to mention those who just generally
protested Donald Trump. Science was championed as the answer to our
problems, with scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and
non-scientists like Bill Nye held up as messiahs for the noble
cause.

Now Nye’s new Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World,
has come along to rescue us and our policies from scientific
ignorance. The underlying message behind the March for Science and
Nye’s show is that science can “solve” public policy problems if we
would just let the scientists and technocrats take over. In one
episode of his show, Nye pondered whether we should have policies that
“penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world[,]”
in order to combat climate change. (Will all the “extra kids”
please stand up?) Population control movements have a long and
sordid history, and have been endorsed by
everyone from environmental catastrophists to anti-immigrationists
to eugenicists.

Without a healthy respect for individual rights and personal
choice, the use of science in public policy can be incredibly
harmful. In order to understand why, it’s helpful to look at when
and how science has been abused.

Without a healthy respect
for individual rights and personal choice, the use of science in
public policy can be incredibly harmful.

On October 19th, 1927, Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized by
the Commonwealth of Virginia. Buck was the first victim of
Virginia’s 1924 Sterilization Act, a law passed because “human
experience has demonstrated that heredity plays an important part
in the transmission of insanity idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy, and
crime.” Buck was an average girl who unwittingly got caught up in a
misguided quest to put the “science” of eugenics into real-world
use so as to purify the human genome through forced
sterilization.

Buck fought her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,
which ratified her sterilization by a vote of 8-1. In the majority
opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote that “three
generations of imbeciles are enough.” (See my extensive discussion
of the case’s history
here
).

Throughout the 1930s (but actually continuing beyond that), at
least 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. American eugenics
research was later put to use by Hitler’s Germany and was even
cited at the Nuremberg Trials.

Many books and articles have been written about the eugenics
movement more broadly, including some popular books of a recent vintage. The American
experience with eugenics, as well as the Australian experience with
stealing children in order to quicken the demise of the aborigines,
to cite just two examples, demonstrate that concerns about the
misuse of science are not confined to totalitarian, murderous
regimes.

But was bad “science” to blame for the ordeals suffered by Buck
and thousands of others, or was it a misunderstanding of science’s
role in public policy?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask a
different one: What if criminality, poverty, and other social ills
are strongly genetically correlated? Given what we now know about
genetics, as well as how much we constantly are learning, it’s not
far-fetched to believe that the vagaries of human genetics may
eventually be understood. Rather than relying on poorly researched
family trees and shoddy experiments — as they did in Carrie’s
case — we may soon be able to identify specific genes for
socially destructive behavior.

So, if the science is good, is some form of sterilization
okay?

Of course not. Science — whether good or bad — does
not solve our public policy problems. There is no “scientific”
answer to how many “feeble-minded” people should be allowed to
breed. That’s not because the science is bad, but because human
rights are not playthings for the scientific establishment,
whatever the prevailing orthodoxy. Given the stain of our eugenics
past, most people probably understand this. But there’s also no
scientific answer to how many people should smoke cigarettes or,
yes, even to climate change. Science can, and should, inform public
policy by discovering the likely outcomes and relevant causal
factors, but it won’t tell us the relevant trade-offs we should
make or what we should value. Science helps us understand how the
world works. It doesn’t tell us what to do with that
understanding.

Nye’s willingness to “go there” and consider some element of
population control shows how those enamored with science as a
solution to public policy problems can be easily led to monstrous
conclusions.

Science has also been part of debates over questions where a
little respect for individual rights and good sense was all that
was needed. We don’t need scientists to discover a “gay gene” in
order to conclude that prohibiting consenting adults from having
sex is wrong, and we don’t need scientists to show us that children
raised in same-sex households are well-adjusted in order to allow
same-sex marriage and child-rearing. To even endorse such arguments
is to imply that only genetically determined sexual preferences
should be protected (sorry BDSM community) and that the state has
the power to use “science” to generally determine (as opposed to
specifically removing children from dangerous households) who is
allowed to raise children. Finally, we don’t need science —
and we especially don’t need horrible dance numbers from Bill Nye’s show — to
tell us that transgendered people deserve our respect and care.

Without a vigorous respect for individual liberty, the tendency
towards “scientism” can be dangerous. We haven’t entered a new
golden age where the misuse and abuse of science in the name of
public policy is no longer a concern. Science, in its trappings of
authority, can be a dangerous enemy of individual rights and human
freedom. Nye’s casual mention of population control shows how
quickly scientific zealotry can lead to savagery.

Trevor Burrus is a Research Fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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Do Negative Test Results Mean School Choice Has Failed? Perhaps the Opposite!

Neal McCluskey

It is understandably considered bad news for school choice when
a study comes out finding negative effects on test scores,
especially one using a “gold standard,” randomized control trial
design. But context is crucial for understanding such findings, and
this may be especially true for a new study of vouchers
in Washington, D.C.

The researchers studied various impacts one year after families
applied to the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship
Program. Studied students participated in a lottery for vouchers,
which is key because who wins or loses is random, automatically
controlling for variables that can powerfully affect outcomes, such
as family income or motivation levels.

nd those who won and used the voucher to attend a private school
— what policymakers likely care most about — saw
slightly lower scores than non-users. Reading scores were also
slightly lower, but were not statistically significant, meaning the
researchers could not be confident the differences were other than
the result of random chance.

So what’s the good news here? Surely no one can be pleased that
choice appears to lead to lower math scores.

For one thing, on other measures the program fared better.
Parent and student satisfaction with their schools were higher for
both lottery winners and winners who used their vouchers, though
the results did not reach statistical significance. Both winners
and users were also more likely to perceive their schools as safe,
though statistical significance was only reached for parents. And
for kids in sixth through 12th grade, the program had a positive
impact on parents’ involvement in education-related activities at
home.

Then there’s this: the
sum of education is far more than standardized test
scores.

Much more important, the test results may well be the result of
choice working, not failing, in Washington. You see,
families in Washington have lots of choices.

First, Washington is a city, so people who live there can put
pressure on the district by saying, “Shape up or we’ll move to
Virginia or Maryland.” More directly, Washington has a huge charter
school sector. Indeed, 42 percent of the study’s control group
attended charter schools, and 10 percent attended private schools
despite losing the lottery. Only 48 percent attended traditional
public schools.

Quite possibly because of so much choice pressure — most
imposed by Congress — the public schools in Washington have
seen marked increases in achievement. According to the National
Assessment of Educational Progress, since the mid-1990s
achievement in Washington
has risen at a rate appreciably
outpacing the national average. Charter schooling in Washington
started in 1996, and the voucher program was created in 2004.

Alas, charter schools — tuition-free public schools that
in many ways seem private — have likely
hurt Washington’s private sector
, which was already struggling
against free traditional public schools and decades of changes in
the Roman Catholic Church, whose schools predominate in the private
sector. If nothing else, struggling to survive cannot be positive
for staff morale.

So no one should be surprised that a voucher program enrolling
fewer than 1,200 students, which has been
repeatedly threatened with extinction, does not have
powerful testing effects. Oh, and a maximum voucher is roughly
$8,000 for grades K-8, and $13,000 for 9-12.
Meanwhile, the traditional public schools spend a whopping $30,000 per-pupil, and charters get about
$17,500
.

Given the gaping funding disparities, it may seem amazing that
previous
“gold-standard” research
found that Washington voucher students
performed on par with the control group on tests, and beat it
soundly on high school graduation rates. And in the current report,
the math difference was only about 7 percentile points between
voucher users and the control group-appreciable, but not
yawning.

Then there’s this: the sum of education is far more than
standardized test scores. Indeed, the nation has seen a backlash against education reduced to such
narrow measures, which
may not predict future success
. And it may be that people want
things out of schooling that simply cannot be easily tested,
ranging from safety, to strong moral values, to appreciation for
the arts, to just a sense of fulfillment. Which is why it may be a
good sign that even if it adversely affected test scores, schools
chosen by lottery winners spent less time on math and reading
instruction than control group schools. They may instead have been
devoting time to music, or field trips, or myriad other very valuable
activities.

Are negative testing impacts good? All other things equal, no.
But all other things are not equal, especially in Washington.

Neal McCluskey is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and maintains Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map.

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100 Days in, Trump Has Already Learned the Seductions of Foreign War

Gene Healy

With his major initiatives stymied by Congress and the courts,
President Trump has begun griping about the media holding him to
“the ridiculous standard of the first 100
days.”
The good news for Trump is he can argue for an
extension: according to some of America’s preeminent
“thought leaders,” he wasn’t really
president until he hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles on April
6.

“The Trump administration can truly be said to have
started only now,” exulted neoconservative foreign policy guru
Elliot Abrams the day after the airstrikes. “Donald Trump
became the president of the United States [last night],”
echoed CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. It was
“a big moment,” “a kind of education of Donald
Trump,” Zakaria gushed: Trump “realized [that]
presidents don’t need to go to a pesky Congress every time
they want military force.”

As a practical matter, Zakaria is right: perversely, it’s
in the use of military force—the area where presidents are
most dangerous—where they now have the freest hand. The
president can’t unilaterally pass a tax cut or a new
health-care plan, but say the word, and the missiles will fly. When
he’s showered in media accolades for doing so, it can make
the resort to force particularly seductive.

With tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, the Trump team has
signaled it may be ready to unleash another barrage, if it can just
get our errant “armada” into position.
Asked last Monday whether the president was “prepared to act
alone” against North Korea, White House press secretary Sean
Spicer replied they’d make sure Congress is
“notified,” but “I think he’s going to
utilize the powers under Article II of the Constitution.” Now
that’s presidential!

Our political culture has
degraded to the point where it encourages the worst presidential
temptations—and we’ve made waging war nearly as easy as
firing off a tweet.

War Abroad Distracts Americans from Home

Our Constitution’s framers had a far narrower view of the
president’s powers, and envisioned a broader role for that
“pesky Congress” in matters of war and peace. As James
Madison put it in 1793, “In no part of the
constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which
confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not
to the executive department”; were it otherwise, “the
trust and the temptation would be too great for any one
man.”

There’s a good deal of political-science evidence
suggesting that the “temptation” Madison warned about
is real. The “rally effect, “for “rally round the
flag,” describes the popularity boost presidents derive from
international conflict: “Scholars have repeatedly found
short-lived spikes in US presidential approval following US uses of military force.”

The “diversionary war” hypothesis—the
scholarly moniker for “Wag the Dog”—proposes that
beleaguered presidents may seek to distract the public by waging
war abroad. Here, the evidence is more mixed. But various studies have found that
presidents are more likely to use force during periods of economic stagnation, or high unemployment, and that “presidents
resort to the sword more quickly when their approval ratings decline.”

Some presidents may be particularly susceptible to temptation:
More conceptually simple
leaders
—particularly when high in distrust, a trait
linked to more hawkish policy inclinations—are significantly
more likely to engage in diversion.”

The Media Love War. Middle America, Not So
Much

Whatever motivated Trump’s Syria strike, it seems to have
given his dismal approval ratings a nudge. Moreover, judging by the chorus of approval from American “opinion
leaders,” the president may have to rethink his view that the
press is the “enemy of the American people.” On Syria,
media elites proved themselves far more likely to “rally
round the flag” than will guys in trucker hats.

The “failing New York Times” greeted the
airstrikes with the headline “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came
First.”
He “did the right thing” was the
common refrain from former critics, like the Times’
Nicholas Kristof, the humanitarian hawk
Anne-Marie Slaughter, and neoconservative
#NeverTrump-er Bret Stephens.

It’s no surprise that, as a senior White House official
told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius,
“The decision to strike a Syrian air base was a confidence builder for an inexperienced and
sometimes fractious White House.” After all, “Trump
couldn’t be sure when he launched the attack that a Russian
wouldn’t be killed, or that some other freak mishap
wouldn’t arise.”

We managed to dodge the worst-case scenarios, but new dangers
lie ahead. As Madison warned: in war, “laurels are to be
gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The
strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human
breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of
fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of
peace.”

Two centuries later, our political culture has degraded to the
point where it encourages the worst presidential
temptations—and we’ve made waging war nearly as easy as
firing off a tweet. If, per Fareed Zakaria, we’re witnessing
the “education of Donald Trump,” what lessons is he
being taught?

Gene Healy is a
vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the
Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.”

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The Wheels of Change Turn Slowly

Ike Brannon

The Washington Post recently trumpeted an
innovative new way
that D.C. area residents are getting to
work: taking the bus! It’s just the contrarian, old-is-the-new-hip
take that’s bound to make the kids start buying morning newspapers
again; never mind the fact that bus trips are down 12 percentin the last year.

Like much of the dreck that’s in the paper these days, there’s a
little bit of truth wrapped up in its banal
perspective—taking the bus probably does work for more people
these days, especially given Metro’s troubles over the last year,
and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)
could do more to help people use it.

However, it’s far from a panacea. The area’s bus service has as
many problems as the Metro, and the biggest one is true for both:
WMATA has been dreadfully slow at improving its bus service.

WMATA has been dreadfully
slow at improving its bus service.

When I first got to town 15 years ago, I lived a block from a
bus route that went directly by my place of work—a perfect
arrangement, it seemed to me. I faithfully took the bus to work
every day for my first month until I discovered one day that it
was, in fact, faster to walk the 2 miles to and from work.

The problems with the bus route I took were numerous and
self-evident to anyone who rode the route regularly. For starters,
the stops were way too close together—less than a city block
apart in many instances.

Exacerbating the time cost of each bus stop was the fact that
many stops gave the bus little room to navigate in and out of
traffic. The people in my neighborhood are adamant about protecting
every single conceivable parking spot: Since the city charges a
pittance for residents to store their car on the street, there is a
vast excess demand for street parking, and the powers that be are
willing to slow a few thousand commuters by 30 seconds a day to
save even one spot.

And while Connecticut Avenue, the main corridor for my bus
route, ostensibly limits parking during rush hours, such rules were
(and remain) haphazardly enforced.

The traffic lights didn’t do buses any favors either: the lights
flowing with rush hour traffic seemed to be timed so that a bus
having to make stops usually hit each one. The one respite from
these lights—going under Dupont Circle—was something
that buses inexplicably never did until a decade ago, which meant
that each bus had to navigate a circle choked with parked cars that
would take a good five minutes during a rush hour.

To its credit, WMATA eventually figured out some of these
problems. Buses now go under Dupont Circle during rush hour, and
for those that do remain on the circle some parking has been
removed and a new traffic pattern eased bottlenecks there. A few
bus stops have been consolidated, although not enough.

And there seems to be a little less tolerance for errant bus
driver behavior. In my initial months of commuting via the bus I
had one driver stop the bus to feed a parking meter, and another
driver stop to try to get a woman’s phone number. One afternoon a
driver kept our bus at a traffic light for five full minutes
without moving or responding to any entreaties from the passengers
before moving on—a bit extreme but not especially so: Bus
drivers go out of their way to hit red lights in this town.

It also appears that WMATA and D.C. have become more diligent in
fixing a broken system. Last weekend I found myself in Georgetown
and was amazed to observe traffic flowing normally—a feat
usually achieved only during the overnight hours. The reason was
that the city had blocked parking on a stretch of M street and used
fences to give the lanes to pedestrians. The absence of drivers
trying to get in and out of parking spots on an exceedingly crowded
road fixed what had seemed to be an intractable problem.

WMATA’s new management seems to genuinely want to improve
Metro’s safety and performance—the previous managers no doubt
did as well, but didn’t seem willing to upset as many apple carts
to achieve it as the current crew. These days the bus beats walking
to my old job most days, sometimes by a fair margin. Here’s hoping
it keeps getting better.

Ike Brannon is
president of Capital Policy Analytics, a Washington consulting
firm, and a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute.

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America First? Not So Fast! What We’ve Learned from 100 Days of Trump Foreign Policy

A. Trevor Thrall and John Glaser

After President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, a
“Trump doctrine” has yet to emerge fully, but one
important lesson is already clear: making radical changes in
American foreign policy is very difficult.

Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 election portended
a dramatic break with the traditional approach to American foreign
policy. Since World War II, no other presidential candidate from
either party had ever challenged the liberal internationalist
strategy of the United States so explicitly, or so
successfully.

His populist campaign slogan, “America First,” was
never a precise guide to his thinking, but the outlines of a
doctrine were always visible. In addition to disavowing the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, forswearing nation-building, and criticizing
the uneven costs of alliances and the liberal world order, Trump
staked out a nationalist agenda that included protectionist trade
policies, stricter immigration policies, and a more hawkish
approach to combating the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

But after all the talk on the campaign trail, it’s hard to
find many clear signs of Trump’s “America First”
strategy or radical shifts in U.S. foreign policy. Even
Trump’s own team is having trouble. At a planning session to
discuss messaging about Trump’s first 100 days, in fact,
communications advisor Mike Dubke told staffers that foreign affairs was going to
be a challenge because “[t]here is no Trump doctrine.”
At least on paper, he was correct. The list of “America
First” successes is short. Trump did sign an executive order
officially withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific
Partnership trade deal. But since that deal was already dead in
Congress, the move was mostly symbolic.

Trump has discovered what
all new presidents learn: It’s easy to call for change, but hard to
make it.

Meanwhile, the list of unfulfilled promises remains long. There
is no border wall. There is no ban on Muslims entering the country.
The Iran deal remains intact. Trump has not yet renegotiated NAFTA,
nor has he gotten tough with China on trade. The United States
remains embroiled in nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Trump
bombed the Syrian regime, and we continue to reassure treaty allies
with reliable security guarantees. In essence, Trump has discovered
what all new presidents learn: It’s easy to call for change,
but hard to make it. It is much easier to tweak a policy than to
overhaul it completely. In fact, on issue after issue, the Trump
administration appears to be settling into an approach to foreign
policy that exhibits more continuity with past administration than
divergence. The reasons for this are important, but also can shed
light on how the next few years of the Trump presidency are likely
to shake out.

Political Reality

In part, the lack of follow-through is what happens to every
president’s campaign rhetoric when it meets political
reality. Though “America First” worked well for Trump
on the campaign trail, he quickly discovered that his slogans
weren’t much of a guide once he was in charge. After calling
NATO obsolete, for example, Trump changed his mind after he learned
more about it, acknowledging that, “People don’t go
around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in
Manhattan, right?” Rather than pulling out of the alliance or
calling for major changes to the American role in NATO, Trump has
limited himself to nagging allies to increase defense spending,
just as every president before him has done. Similarly, after
promising to rip up NAFTA, a trade deal he repeatedly called
a “disaster,” the administration has recalculated after
hearing from a chorus of potential opponents to the move. As a
result, Trump now plans to seek more modest amendments to the agreement.

In other cases, Trump appears to have changed his mind about the
political costs of radical change once in power. When Trump
confronted Chinese President Xi Jinping about North Korea, for
example, he got a crash course on the issue and changed his mind.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so
easy,” Trump admitted. “I felt pretty strongly that
[China] had tremendous power” over North Korea, “but
it’s not what you would think.” Trump also discovered
that a lot of what he thought he knew just wasn’t so, including the fact that,
contrary to his own repeated claims, China was no longer engaged in currency manipulation.

Institutional Roadblocks

Trump has also run into the institutional roadblocks that stand
ready to frustrate all presidents. As much power as presidents
wield in the national security realm, many policies require the
help or approval of other branches of government. Trump’s
executive order to restrict travel from seven,
later six, Muslim-majority nations, for example, has twice been
blocked by the federal courts and will have to overcome
constitutional challenges before it comes into effect.

Nor has Congress been any more helpful with Trump’s
signature issue, the Mexican border wall. Trump issued an executive order calling for the immediate
construction of the wall, but the follow through will depend on
Trump getting funding from Congress. However, now
that Mexico’s leaders have said they won’t pay for it,
Congressional Republicans have made it clear that they are not willing to pony up either.

The Rest of the World

Another challenge to Trump’s efforts is that the rest of
the world is not making it easy to change gears. Thanks to
long-standing expectations of American leadership, the pressure to
act in response to events abroad can be overwhelming. The best
example of this is the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas against
civilians in Idlib
. After seeing graphic images of the tragedy,
Trump felt compelled to respond with military force. He did so
despite having opposed a similar attack in Syria when Obama
was in office. The inconsistency between Trump’s
“America First” campaign rhetoric, and his behavior as
president, reveals how difficult it is to resist the pressure to
play global policeman.

In other cases, change is difficult because the facts on the
ground simply leave little room for strategic innovation. North
Korea’s development of long-range missiles and nuclear
weapons continues to provoke U.S. concerns, but despite tough talk
the Trump administration has few real options other than to work
with China and others in pursuit of a diplomatic solution.
Likewise, Trump’s desire to pursue a more aggressive campaign
against the Islamic State is stunted by the fact that there is
simply no way to speed up the battle short of sending tens of
thousands of American troops back into harm’s way. As a
result, Trump’s Islamic State strategy looks a lot like an
amped-up version of Obama’s strategy.

Where Art Thou, America Firsters?

Another factor in Trump’s gradual bend towards foreign
policy convention comes down to personnel. So far, Trump has
only managed to confirm 22 of the more than 500 federal
appointments that require Senate confirmation, many of them in the
national security realm. This makes implementing policy, never mind
tectonic shifts in strategic posture, much harder.

The personnel shortage influences even the highest reaches of
Trump’s own cabinet. Early on, the prominence of volatile
hawks like retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and brash ideologues like
Steve Bannon produced an approach that tended to amplify
Trump’s policy illiteracy and spurn the experts within the
national security bureaucracy. Now, with Flynn ousted and Bannon possibly marginalized, mainstream Republican foreign
policy views held by people like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis,
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki
Haley have gained greater purchase in the White House’s
approach to the world.

The ascendance of more traditional Republican foreign policy
officials has coincided with Trump’s decision to give greater
leeway to military leaders. President Obama was sometimes
criticized for micro-managing military actions in Afghanistan, the
fight against the Islamic State, and the drone war. Trump has gone the other way and authorized the military to engage in
airstrikes, special operations raids, and troop deployments with
wide latitude. This has necessarily meant an
approach more in line with traditional U.S. foreign policy and less
consistent with “America First” ideas.

A more fundamental challenge underlying the personnel issue is
the fact that, for more than 70 years, Washington has been
dominated by a particular set of ideas about the need for a grand
strategy of deep engagement, an activist foreign policy, and
American leadership of the international system. Staffing the
executive branch with “America Firsters” is hard to do
— mainly because they don’t exist anywhere in the
Washington foreign policy community. As a result, when Trump gets
advice from mainstream military leaders and other veteran policy
advisors about Syria, North Korea, or Russia, their advice comes
steeped in the assumptions of liberal internationalism.

Process Trumps Doctrine

But perhaps most detrimental to Trump’s “America
First” vision is the fact that the Trump doctrine has taken a
backseat to the Trump process.

For starters, Trump does not seem entirely wedded to his own
“America First” doctrine. Despite the manifestly
ideological nature of the Trump campaign, to most observers it
looks like Trump — for good or ill – simply does not yet have well-formed
opinions about how to confront the many foreign policy challenges
the United States faces. As president, Trump thus appears to be
ideologically unmoored, priding himself on “flexibility,” and eager to abandon ideas
that helped get him elected if they seem to hamper effective
governance. The result has been a series of flip-flops on matters
of policy without a hint of hesitation or shame.

The lack of ideological principle translates to a lack of
strategic deliberation. Trump’s missile strikes on Syria and
his saber rattling on North Korea both smack of a desire to look
tough, but neither are part of a serious broader strategy. The
Syria strikes will not mitigate the humanitarian suffering there
and were not even intended to affect the balance of power in the
civil war. And the threats of preventive war on North Korea
won’t compel Pyongyang to denuclearize. In the absence of an
overarching ideological or strategic approach, short-term tactical
considerations tailored to achieve quick but small wins rule the
day.

The “America First” program remains at the mercy of
Trump’s personality and governing style. On this score, a
review of his first 100 days in office makes clear that Trump
injects an element of unpredictability to the entire foreign policy
enterprise. Trump’s tendency to comment on breaking news and
to create foreign policy on the fly via Twitter, often without warning
his senior advisors first, not only worries old foreign policy
hands but raises the chances that Trump will call an audible rather
than stick to the “America First” playbook. Perhaps the
only consistent theme in Trump’s approach is the desire to

bolster
his
domestic legitimacy and shore up American prestige abroad
.
Those motivations, we note, have so far pushed Trump toward greater
foreign policy activism, not “America First”
isolationism.

What Does the Next Hundred Days Hold?

At just 100 days in it is impossible to know what form a Trump
doctrine will finally take. Given how much momentum the status quo
has, and how lightly Trump appears to hold his vision of America
First, the most likely outcome is something that looks a great deal
like the strategy of liberal hegemony pursued by the past two
presidencies. Trump will fight terrorism, support America’s
global alliance system, and continue to field the world’s
largest and most capable military, occasionally using it to
intervene abroad out of humanitarian and security concerns.

Nonetheless it is certainly possible that the rest of
Trump’s term will look more “America First” than
the first 100 days have. Though overhauling NATO or significantly
reducing America’s role in the world will be difficult, with
time, Trump might overcome some of the institutional roadblocks on
immigration reform and economic protectionism.

Domestic political pressures may also encourage Trump to seek a
deeper embrace of America First. In the short term, Trump may get
away with experiments in foreign policy that depart from his
rhetoric. But Trump eventually faces the prospect of a second
presidential campaign. And though foreign policy typically plays a
muted role in elections, the genius of Trump’s vision of
“America First” was the way it connected foreign
affairs with domestic outcomes. Trump criticized intervention and
nation-building because they hurt working Americans. For Trump,
unlike for other presidents, pursuing an interventionist and
internationalist foreign policy risks abandoning his political
base. Thus, as his term proceeds, Trump may feel the need to take a
more visibly nationalist approach to foreign policy to boost his
chances for reelection.

Trevor
Thrall
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and associate
professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George
Mason University. John Glaser is
Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

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The US Should Give Peace a Chance When It Comes to North Korea

A. Trevor Thrall

On Wednesday, President Trump will host all 100 members of the
Senate at the White House for an extraordinary briefing on North Korea’s
nuclear program. Given all the saber rattling so far, it would not
be surprising to hear Trump issue more warnings to North Korea. In
just the past week National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Vice President Mike Pence
have both warned that “all of our options are on the
table” regarding North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear
program.

Stern sounding words, certainly, but in fact their statements
were in keeping with an American foreign policy tradition. In 2011,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that “all options were on the table” to keep
Gaddafi from using military force against civilians in Libya. And
in 2008 while running for office, Barack Obama said he would
take no options off the table” to keep
Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The years of repetition by both political parties makes it
pretty clear that the United States wants its adversaries to know
that, well, all options are on the table. Unfortunately, they
aren’t.

In light of the risks and
costs of military intervention and the public’s strong preferences,
it’s time for the Trump administration to give diplomacy a
chance.

The truth is that “all options are on the table” has
simply become the most popular shorthand for threatening the use of
force if things don’t go America’s way. A search of the
Factiva U.S. newspaper database reveals that
since 2001 the phrase has appeared in almost 5,000 stories.
What’s even more telling, however, is the trend. In the
fifteen years before 9/11, the New York Times and Washington
Post
combined to use the phrase 62 times. Since then
they’ve used the phrase 427 times. And thanks to the Trump
administration’s saber rattling about North Korea, the phrase
has been used over three times as often during the Trump
administration as it was during the Obama administration.

Why are politicians so keen to threaten the military option? One
would imagine that the past 15 or 16 years of costly and
counterproductive military effort in the Middle East would have
cured most people of the habit. The unfortunate answer is that
since 9/11 Washington has become addicted to the use of military
force. At this point Republicans and Democrats alike believe that
the “big stick” is necessary to ensure productive
diplomacy.

The threat of force can, under some circumstances, induce
concessions. But threats are only credible if the United States is
willing to carry them out. American threats against North Korea,
however, have always been empty because a military strike would be
too risky. Ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons aside, hundreds
of North Korea’s long-range conventional artillery pieces
sit within easy striking distance of Seoul,
South Korea, a city of 10 million people. A U.S. strike could lead
to catastrophic retaliation by North Korea.

Some might argue that America’s leaders talk tough because
they believe the public prefers aggressive responses to
international threats. Hawks might point, for example, to polls
that show a majority of Americans support the military campaign against ISIS, or
to a September 2015 CNN/ORC poll that found 64 percent
supported the United States taking military action if Iran violated
the terms of the JCPOA nuclear deal aimed to halting Iran’s
nuclear weapons program.

When it comes to North Korea, however, the polls tell a
different story. In an April 2017 Marist poll, despite the fact that most
Americans view North Korea as a “major threat,” 69
percent think the United States should use diplomacy compared to
just 23 percent who believe the U.S. should take military
action.

More fundamentally, the hawkish “all options”
approach is out of step with how Americans think the United States
should conduct foreign policy. Americans have long believed
diplomacy is more useful than military strength. Since 1994 the Pew
Research Center has asked Americans whether “good
diplomacy” or “military strength” is the
“best way to ensure peace.” Americans have chosen good
diplomacy over military strength by an average of 58 to 32 percent.
In 2015, the margin was 62 to 30 percent. Even when the issue in
question is deadly serious, like nuclear proliferation, Americans
choose diplomacy. In a series of CBS/New
York Times
polls between 2006 and 2013, for example, when
given a choice between using military force to stop Iran from
developing nuclear weapons or continuing with diplomacy, just 17
percent chose the military option.

In light of the risks and costs of military intervention and the
public’s strong preferences, it’s time for the Trump
administration to give diplomacy a chance. When U.S. leaders say,
“all options are on the table” all options really
should be on the table. The United States may not get everything it
wants through diplomacy, but a failure of diplomacy will be less
costly than a crisis that escalates out of control thanks to
aggressive rhetoric.

A. Trevor
Thrall
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Defense and
Foreign Policy Department and associate professor at George Mason
University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

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Who Just Made the Case for Drug Legalization? Drug-warrior in chief Jeff Sessions, That’s Who

Adam Bates

For decades, critics of the drug war have argued that drug prohibition begets violence. Recently,
that argument received the seemingly unwitting support of a
surprising source: drug war advocate and new Attorney General Jeff
Sessions.

“You can’t sue somebody for a drug debt. The only way to get
your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to
follow that,” Sessions told reporters.

This claim has been repeated by the Justice Department’s
Steven H. Cook, a close Sessions ally.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized
marijuana. Marijuana growers, distributors and buyers in those
juridictions can go to court to settle their differences
rather than resorting to violent self-help. The violence that
Sessions insists is inherent in the drug trade is a byproduct of
prohibition.

It’s certainly true that the manufacturers, distributors and
users of illegal drugs cannot avail themselves of the court system
when disputes arise. Sessions’ implication that the problem is
inherent in the drug market, however, is simply false. The reason
drug market participants can’t go to court is because the
government refuses to let them.

Sessions wants to roll
back legalization and renew the war on drugs — but he
accidentally argued the opposite case.

None of this is new. In 2017, if two alcohol distributors have a
dispute, they go to court or settle it in the market. In 1929, if
two alcohol distributors had a dispute, they often settled it on
the street corner with Tommy guns. Alcohol distribution isn’t
inherently violent. The government made it that way.

With the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, the American
alcohol market was driven underground. As prohibition took hold,
the murder rate skyrocketed, attacks on police officers spiked, and criminal
gangs took over large swaths of urban America. We talk about
Chicago today as a city plagued by crime, but Prohibition-era Chicago had it beat hands-down.
The market for alcohol didn’t evaporate under Prohibition, it just
became more illegal and more violent.

When Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment, the murder
rate dropped for more than a decade. Attacks on police officers
dropped as well, and the wave of crime receded … until the drug
war ramped up.

A study by the Rand Corp., commissioned by the Obama
administration, estimated that the U.S. market for marijuana,
cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine alone is worth more than $100 billion a year. That much money
changing hands without any access to peaceful, lawful means of
dispute resolution is a recipe for disaster, and we’ve seen the
consequences of that disaster on our streets and in those of
neighboring countries.

Even conservative estimates put the toll of lives lost to the
Mexican drug war in the tens of thousands. Other estimates reach much higher. Police and paramilitary
responses have failed to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the
U.S. There is simply too much money to be made. The one policy that
has shown some potential for reducing drug violence in Mexico:
legalization in America.

It’s time to learn the same lesson with other drugs that we were
forced to learn with alcohol: Addiction should be treated as a
public health issue, not a crime. Alcohol prohibition didn’t end
alcoholism or alcohol abuse, and it didn’t rid America of the
“bad people” who consumed it.

There is no reason to continue believing that drug prohibition
is any more likely to do those things than alcohol prohibition was.
Rather than continually escalating the war on drugs into an actual
war — President Donald Trump has even hinted at a military invasion of
Mexico — let’s learn the lesson our great-grandparents did.
Drug use is not inherently violent. Drug prohibition, however,
is.

The drug market is going to exist no matter what hard-line
policies President Trump and Attorney General Sessions come up with. The only question is whether it’s
going to be a peaceful, legally regulated market or a
vigilante-enforced black market. Jeff Sessions understands, if
unwittingly, the problem with drug prohibition. Now he just needs
to accept the obvious solution.

Adam Bates is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.

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Strategic Impatience Won’t Defeat North Korea

Doug Bandow

It’s been barely three months, and already I’m starting to miss
Barack Obama. Even worse, I’m pining for Hillary Clinton. Neither
one of them would have so dramatically botched dealings with North
Korea.

True, there’s no easy answer to Pyongyang’s challenge. The
isolated Communist monarchy might have enough nuclear materials to
construct twenty or so weapons. We don’t know what it can deliver
where, but we can’t discount the possibility that the North can hit
South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in the region. Moreover, North
Korea’s arsenal is only going to expand in the years ahead.

So with great fanfare, the Trump administration announced that
the policy of “strategic patience” was over. Okay. But
officials offered nothing in its place. Strategic impatience,
apparently. To what end, one wonders?

The more Washington
threatens, the stronger the case becomes for the North to develop
long-range missiles capable of hitting U.S. targets.

The president put great emphasis on getting China to
“solve” the problem. If Beijing didn’t do so, he
proclaimed, America would do the solving. But the president soon
admitted that he had little understanding of either the problem or
the solution.

Absent an invasion, which is a tad unlikely, the People’s
Republic of China cannot simply halt North Korea’s nuclear
and missile research. What the PRC can do is apply economic
pressure, cutting off trade, especially in food and energy.
However, Pyongyang could choose to accept the consequences and
continue with its current policies.

The human cost would be high, but mostly for folks already at
the bottom of the human heap. During the late 1990s, hundreds of
thousands of North Koreans starved to death. The regime, headed by
the present ruler’s father, stayed on course, pursuing
nuclear weapons, rejecting economic reform and maintaining
political control. The current regime might similarly survive.

Then what?

The president and his aides intimated that military action was
just around the corner. Pyongyang must “behave,” it was
said. All options are on the table, intoned various officials. A
carrier battle group sat off North Korea’s coast while the
president said he was sending an (it turns out, nonexistent)
“armada” to monitor the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea.

After that buildup, nothing. Vice President Mike Pence stood at the DMZ and peered northward, making a
stern face for Kim to see. Then he came home. And everyone started
thinking about other issues.

It actually has the feel of an Obamaesque red line. President
Trump huffed and puffed, but didn’t blow the house down.
Instead, he exhaled and walked away. The next time the
administration revs up the threat machine, the DPRK is going to pay
less attention. After all, strategic impatience might not end up
looking that much different than strategic patience after all.

Results might have been better had the president known something
about the subject. One can forgive him for being largely ignorant
of the complexities of the issue when he ran for
office—believing that China “controlled” the
North, for instance. But he apparently wasn’t briefed before
his summit with Xi Jinping, the president of China. How else to
explain President Trump’s comment that only after his
counterpart explained the subject did he realize how complicated it
was?

He lost a great opportunity to negotiate with Xi. President
Trump did dramatically put the North Korean issue to the Chinese
government. However, Beijing has good reason to avoid doing
America’s bidding. As noted earlier, even applying
bone-crunching economic sanctions might not bring “Young
Marshall” Kim Jong-un to heel. Then the PRC would have ruined
its relationship with the North for nothing.

Or the Kim regime and North Korean state might collapse,
unleashing a deluge of refugees across the Yalu, triggering
factional fighting and military combat, and loosing nuclear
materials to states and groups. Before taking such a risk, the
Chinese government might appreciate a U.S. promise to aid the PRC
in coping with the consequences.

Moreover, while Washington would welcome a reunited Korea,
Beijing would not, especially if the Republic of Korea retained its
military alliance with America and continued to host U.S. troops.
In effect, the PRC would be aiding its own military containment.
Here, a few assurances from Washington and Seoul also might
help—that, for instance, U.S. forces would return home after
reunification and a new, enlarged Korea would follow a policy of
military nonalignment.

Finally, if the Trump administration is going to ostentatiously,
if not entirely convincingly, threaten war, it should offer a
peaceful alternative to surrender. Attacking the DPRK very likely
would trigger a horrendous war in which hundreds of thousands or
even millions of people would be killed, injured or displaced. That
ugly reality undermines the credibility of the threat. Certainly
war should be a last resort.

The best reason to make the threat is to convince Pyongyang to
come to the negotiating table. Yet Vice President Pence declared that “all of those negotiations
and discussions failed, miserably,” so there was no reason to
talk. The plan now is to bring sufficient pressure on the North,
primarily through China, to force the North to abandon its missile
and nuclear programs. And if that doesn’t work?

“We are going to achieve the end of a denuclearization of
the Korean peninsula—one way or the other,” said the
vice president. But again, how? With military action? If forced to
choose between war and surrender, surrender which the Kim regime
might view as the equivalent of war, just under less favorable
circumstances (think Libya!), Pyongyang might choose the first. If
Washington ends up only bluffing, however, another dead end would
be reached. And administration credibility would be in tatters.

The greatest irony may be that the more Washington threatens,
even if its warnings turn out to be empty, the stronger the case
becomes for the North to develop long-range missiles capable of
hitting U.S. targets. How else to deter the superpower from yet
another exercise in regime change? Obviously the DPRK has other
reasons for desiring a nuclear arsenal, but the price for yielding
it can only grow to the extent that it genuinely fears U.S.
military action.

It was evident during the campaign that President Trump put a
high value on bluster. So apparently do his appointees.
Unfortunately, huffing and puffing won’t solve the North Korea
problem.

The president still has time to return to some of his campaign
ideas, such as being willing to talk to Kim Jong-un. It turns out
that candidate Trump unscripted is more sensible than President
Trump programmed. If he doesn’t rediscover his voice, his foreign
policy will be no more successful than that of his predecessor. And
America could find itself in a flurry of wars, including Korea.
There would be no quicker way to wreck his presidency.

Doug Bandow is
a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant
to President Ronald Reagan.