What Would a Populist Immigration Policy Do?

The editors of The Washington Post tell half the story about the American public’s views on immigration:

THE FOREIGN-born share of the U.S. population has doubled in the past three decades and now stands at its highest point in nearly a century. Little wonder, then, that illegal immigration triggers visceral debate and white-hot rhetoric during a presidential election campaign. What may be more surprising is that Americans, by a large majority, continue to oppose mass deportation and to favor allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.

which is that six out of ten Americans are dissatisfied with our present levels of immigration and a solid majority think we have too many immigrants. That’s why the “build a fence” position has resonance.

So a truly populist immigration policy would:

  1. Cut or eliminate the present rate of immigration.
  2. Provide a path to legalization (we’ll ignore that some Americans’ preference is for the path to legalization to start in Mexico City).

or, in other words, they want our laws to be followed.


Affording Old People

I agree with Doug Elmendorf’s Washington Post op-ed in which he outlines our fundamental fiscal problem, i.e. the high costs of Social Security and Medicare, and proposes a solution—making both programs “more progressive” by which I presume he means increasing FICA max and changing the benefits formula:

Instead, we should focus on reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits for high-income beneficiaries and raising payroll taxes on workers with high earnings. For example, the Congressional Budget Office has analyzed options to lower Social Security benefits for workers in the top half of the lifetime earnings distribution but leave benefits for those in the bottom half unchanged. There are a variety of ways to increase tax revenue for Social Security by imposing a payroll tax on income above the current-law taxable maximum. Taken together, such targeted measures could eliminate much of the estimated 75-year shortfall in the system. In Medicare, additional tax revenue could be raised by boosting the payroll tax rate for workers with higher earnings. Also, the additional premiums paid by higher-income beneficiaries in Medicare Part B could be extended to cover a much larger share of beneficiaries than the current 6 percent (a figure that will increase in coming years under current law but just by about half a percentage point per year).

I also support other reforms that he dismisses: increasing the Social Security (and Medicare!) retirement age and cutting military spending while also reducing the scope of the missions we’re demanding from our military.

I wish he’d included more numbers in his op-ed. My recollection is that it’s hard to bring Social Security in line without draconian cuts even if both of the reforms above were implemented which is difficult enough. That’s why I also support something Dr. Elmendorf doesn’t even mention: restraining the increase in the Medicare reimbursement rate to the non-healthcare rate of inflation.

I honestly don’t see any way to bring our operating costs, the greatest part of which are Social Security, Medicare, military spending, and interest on the debt, into line with our income without imposing some of the pain on suppliers as well as consumers which is why I also support the limitation above.

Most of all we need more robust economic growth, something darned hard to accomplish while spending so much on things (military, education, healthcare) that are mostly or completely paid for via tax dollars and borrowing.


Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Resolved: That all national borders be abolished.

In a recent Atlantic article, Alex Tabarrok takes the affirmative on the proposition above. In the article he fails to produce facts or evidence. This is the entirety of his argument, such as it is, from the slug of the article:

No defensible moral framework regards foreigners as less deserving of rights than people born in the right place at the right time.

That is nonsense. It is a claim not a proof. He is using a rhetorical device (and fallacy) called “burden-shifting”, attempting to place the burden of proof which, as the affirmative, he must meet on those who oppose his position. Ultimately, I believe Dr. Tabarrok is confusing ends with means.

There is no universally recognized human right. There are extreme cases of that. For example, in some places same-sex sexual activity is considered a right; in others it may get you executed. The less extreme cases are simply too numerous to mention. In Mexico non-Mexicans do not have a generalized right to own real property; here non-Americans do. The English recognize a right to “cross the land”; here that is considered trespassing. In most countries of the world including England, France, and Germany there is no right to freedom of the press quite as expansive as ours. The list is endless.

Indeed, it is true for every right—free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, private property, the right of transit, and so on and so on. Notions of rights are portable; people bring them with them when they move from place to place.

The very notion of rights is culturally mediated. In some places rights are construed very expansively. In others they are practically nonexistent. That most expansive of explications of human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, does not recognize a right of immigration (emigration, yes; transit within countries, yes; immigration, no). To the best of my knowledge no majority Muslim country recognizes the Universal Declaration—it is considered inconsistent with Islam. There is an alternative Islamic Declaration of Human rights. Far from inhibiting human rights, rights are secured by borders.

Borders do not cause these differences although the borders may reflect the differences. The differences are caused because of differences in preferences, differences among cultures.

A world without national boundaries would not be a world in which rights were expansive and every person was regarded as inherently possessing equal and high moral worth. It would be a world in which rights were reduced to the lowest common denominator, i.e. no rights at all, and persons would be considered as having no moral worth.

Borders secure my rights, particularly my right to freedom of association and my right to property. Indeed, the right to property only exists within national boundaries.

After failing to establish a first principles argument, Dr. Tabarrok is left with a comparative advantages argument and he fails to meet that as well. The Western world is quite familiar with the implications of a world without national borders. In such a world there were still governments, armies, and weapons. There was also war without boundaries, war without end. Thousands starved due to the war-induced famine; more were concerned with simply surviving than with asserting their rights. Far from being an economic parousia it was an economic desert.

Borders and the sovereignty of national governments within those borders brought peace, security, economic growth, and prosperity. In much of the world there are still no national borders or, more precisely, national borders are merely lines on a map and otherwise of little significance. Those are places of war, insecurity, poverty, and desperation.

Hat tip: Charles Cameron, Zenpundit


Public Statements and Reality

You’ve always got to wonder what North Korea, the Alex Forrest of the international community, is up to. Here’s the public statement:

“Our revolutionary force is ready to respond to any kind of war the American imperialists want,” said Kim, whose speech was interrupted by applause several times.

Through the line of Songun (military-first) politics, our Korean People’s Army has become the strongest revolutionary force and our country has become an impenetrable fortress and a global military power,” he said.

The reality is that North Korea’s ability to project power outside of the Korean Peninsula is actually quite limited and the country simply does not have the resources to fight an extended conflict with anyone.

The discrepancy between those two is one reason a story like this makes me nervous:

U.S. officials could soon send a Navy ship steaming by a chain of man-made islands that China has built in the South China Sea, Pentagon officials said, potentially exacerbating tensions in an area in which Beijing is expanding its presence.

China set up a territorial limit around the islands, effectively claiming international waters as their own. Washington does not recognize those claims, prompting the Navy to develop plans to send at least one ship within 12 nautical miles of the islands, a defense official said.

The Navy sending ships through the disputed areas would require approval from the White House, and underscore that the United States will not let China limit freedom of navigation at sea, the official added. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so.

China and the U. S. aren’t the only players there. That is within the area in which North Korea can project power and I don’t know how we can ever really be sure about what the always erratic Kim regime will do.


Assessing International Agreements

Stepping back from the partisan and ideological struggle over international agreements and the heat over the Iran deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, I think it’s useful to reflect a bit on just how you go about evaluating the advisability of international agreements. Basically, I think there are two distinct factors, both of which need to be taken into account.

The first factor, obviously enough, is the actual agreement itself, its text, codicils, and any mutual understandings which may or may not be written into the actual text of the agreement. But there’s another factor that’s equally important and, I think far too frequently ignored.

That’s whether one or both parties are able to live up to the terms of the agreement. That’s why, for example, I don’t think an agreement with China on intellectual property is anything but a gag line. China doesn’t have the social, legal, or political structures that would be necessary to enforce such an agreement. It doesn’t have a robust system of civil law. How can you enforce intellectual property law in such an environment? You can’t.

That, for example, is why I’m interested in the details of what Japan has agreed to in the TPP agreement. We already have “free trade” agreements (actually managed trade agreements) in place with Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Singapore. We don’t have a pre-existing free trade agreement with Japan, we could really use one, and there are some things that neither we nor the Japanese can actually deliver regardless of what’s written on the paper.


Face It: It’s All Our Fault

I think there may be exactly one sentence in Shadi Hamid’s Atlantic article on Islamism, the Arab Spring, and what he deems “the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East” with which I agree. Here’s the sentence:

The notion of neutrality, for a country as powerful as the United States, is illusory.

Read the article if you must. I disagree with much of the rest, in some cases vehemently.

I think I may have a different standard for the success or failure of our policies than Dr. Hamid. I think that our policy should be judged by whether it furthers our interests or not. What I’ve observed is that our actions have generally been less effective in promoting our interests than inaction would have been. That is to be expected. Americans generally are disinterested in other countries and their people. Until they aren’t. And that’s no basis on which to found solid courses of action.

Additionally, we’ve frequently been ineffectual in the Middle East but haven’t been inactive in more than forty years. We’re not inactive in Syria now. We’re supporting Sunni Arab rebels, just as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda, and DAESH are. We’ve also flown thousands of missions, most of which have destroyed little that hasn’t been replaced with ease and aren’t providing much in the way of a deterrent. Again, that’s ineffectual not inactive.

There is a view, remarkably popular nowadays and apparently particularly popular in the Middle East, that everything that happens does so because the U. S. government made it happen. Those who hold this view necessarily believe that no other country has any interests or pursues them and that potential is equivalent to action. It’s a convenient view because it absolves people of the follow of their own actions or inactions.

I hold very nearly the opposite view and believe that people in the Middle East who believe that their circumstances are entirely due to U. S. meddling are mistaken and Americans who believe the same thing are, as P. G. Wodehouse might have put it, far from hinged.

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There’s More to Poverty Than Just Being Poor

Noah Smith has an interesting post at Bloomberg on some recent studies on strategies for helping the poor, one from the NBER and the other from Nature Neuroscience. The connecting thread between the two is giving money to people.

Our present system is predicated on in kind payments to the poor. We pay physicians, dentists, social workers, teachers, and many, many other people earning multiples of the median income to help the poor and hope that it actually helps the poor. Why not eliminate the middle man, give the poor money, and let poor people decide what will help them?

There are any number of reasons including that physicians and teachers have much better lobbyists than the poor do. One of the things I find endlessly fascinating is the widespread belief that the NRA has a stranglehold on the Congress because of their lobbying but other interest groups including bankers, realtors, physicians, and teachers, all of whom through their professional or industry organizations spend at least as much on lobbying as the National Rifle Association does, don’t have similar influence in their own areas. They’re certainly getting a lot more for their money.

Another reason is that there’s a strong Calvinist streak in our national ethos. The poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. They make poor choices. They can’t be trusted to act responsibly or take charge of their own lives.

I think that’s problematic. The reality is that the potential impact of a poor decision weighs much heavier on the poor. One night’s getting drunk or getting high or getting pregnant can ruin a poor kid’s life whereas for a rich kid it would mean nothing at all and for a middle class kid it might just be a speed bump. I’m not trying to excuse poor decisions. Just trying to suggest a different way of thinking about them.

Another thing that many people don’t realize about being poor is how stressful it is. High levels of cortisol early in life can have adverse effects on brain development and on impulse control, just to name two.

I’m not sure what the solution is. There will always be poor people especially when we define poverty in relative terms. Freedom means freedom to fail but I think that we probably should think carefully about just how cosseted we think the poor should be.


Making Child Care Affordable

When I read this article from the Economic Policy Institute, “High Quality Child Care Is Out of Reach for Working Families”, the thought that occurred to me was, if given the choice among these four alternatives

  1. Subsidize child care providers. Make child care a function of the state just as child education has become a function of the state.
  2. Provide money for child care to poor households with children.
  3. Provide money for poor families with children. The requirements would be
    1. Parents married.
    2. Parents living in the same household.
    3. Between the two of them, the parents are working at least 40 hours a week.
    4. Family income no greater than one standard deviation below median family income.
  4. Do nothing. It’s the parents’ problem.

which would be the best alternative?

That question is sort of a Rorschach test. IMO there’s no obvious winner. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Something depends on your notion of what constitutes a good society.


The Rectification of Names

I disagree with Francis Wilkinson’s assertion that the Freedom Caucus in the House are anti-democratic. I think they are anti-republican. As Plato said the virtue most necessary in a republic is moderation, because moderation gives you the ability to compromise and compromise is necessary in a republic.


The Real Real Obama Doctrine

Is Niall Ferguson right? Is the “Obama Doctrine” really:

The president always intended to repudiate more than George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In a 2012 presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama made clear that he was turning away from Ronald Reagan, too. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he jeered, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Mr. Romney’s reference to Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” now looks prescient, whereas the president’s boast, in a January 2014 New Yorker magazine interview, that he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now” looks like hubristic rejection of foreign-policy experience itself. Two months later, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.

Mr. Obama also had his own plan for the Middle East. “It would be profoundly in the interest” of the region’s citizens “if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” Mr. Obama said in that same interview. “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . predominantly Sunni Gulf states and Iran.”

Now I see that this was the strategy—a strategy aimed at creating a new balance of power in the Middle East. The deal on Iran’s nuclear-arms program was part of Mr. Obama’s aim (as he put it to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in May) “to find effective partners—not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Libya.” Mr. Obama said he wanted “to create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future.”

I think it’s simpler than that. I think it’s “Don’t blame me”, a policy always doomed to failure. I do take exception with these remarks from Dr. Ferguson:

Some things you can learn on the job, like tending bar or being a community organizer. National-security strategy is different. “High office teaches decision making, not substance,” Mr. Kissinger once wrote. “It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it.” The next president may have cause to regret that Barack Obama didn’t heed those words. In making up his strategy as he has gone along, this president has sown the wind. His successor will reap the whirlwind. He or she had better bring some serious intellectual capital to the White House.

IMO the last thing we need in the White House is someone who brings “serious intellectual capital”. That’s the view from the Ivory Tower. What we need is someone who trusts his staff and attracts a staff worthy of trust. And I don’t mean a close circle of cronies he’s known for twenty years.