The Line Forms

As should be surprising to no one, representatives of various industries are lining up to feed at the trough which the Biden Administration’s “infrastructure plan” will provide. Among them I found this at RealClearPolicy from Ben Bordelon, representing the maritime industry, particularly interesting:

The U.S. maritime industry is resilient, and as the backbone of America’s national and economic security, has delivered despite significant trials from natural disasters to foreign conflict. However, 2020 brought unprecedented challenge. Reduced demand and the increased operational costs that have accompanied some harsh new operating realities dampen hopes for an industry that will be critical if we are truly going to “Build Back Better.”

To ensure the maritime industry’s long-term viability as a critical engine of the U.S. economy, our country is in need of decisive leadership. From regulations, to shipbuilding, to port development, there are many areas that are in dire need of attention. It is our hope that the Biden administration will put the personnel and policies in place to make that a reality.

He continues with a defense of the Jones Act, the century old legislation that mandates that only American-flagged ships built, owned, and operated by U. S. citizens may transport goods between U. S. ports or operate in inland waterways. The Jones Act is controversial with supporters arguing that it fosters American jobs and interests and opponents arguing that the effect of the Jones Act has been to decimate American shipbuilding. Today the U. S. builds very few if any container ships—almost all are built in Asia. American ships tend to be older and inefficient.

Furthermore, the Jones Act is easily subverted for much coastal transport and shippers have incentives to do so as Cato points out:

To get a sense of the inefficiencies, a Maritime Administration report found that the operating costs of U.S.-flagged vessels engaged in foreign commerce in 2010 were 2.7 times greater than those of their foreign competitors.61 The daily operating costs, which include crew, tools, supplies, maintenance and repair, insurance, and overhead were tallied at $7,454 for foreign‐​flagged vessels, but a whopping $20,053 for U.S.-flagged vessels. Of the U.S. total, 68 percent ($13,655) was crew costs, as compared to 35 percent for foreign‐​flagged ships. It should be no surprise that labor unions are among the Jones Act’s most vigorous supporters.62 Maintenance and repair costs, meanwhile, are inflated by a provision in the Tariff Act of 1922 — supported by Senator Jones — mandating that repairs made in foreign ports be subject to a 50 percent ad valorem tax.63 Moreover, any rebuilding of a ship abroad — defined as the addition of more than 7.5 percent of the vessel’s steelweight to the hull and superstructure, or adding a major component weighing more than 1.5 percent of the vessel’s steelweight — will cause the vessel to lose its Jones Act eligibility.

Unlike Cato my view is that subsidizing U. S. shipbuilding would be prudent and that the Jones Act should be expanded if anything. There is presently no such thing as a genuinely “green” container ship. Although present container ships have become more efficient over the last decade, they are completely dependent on oil to power them and there is a limit on how efficient they can become. For the record China’s restrictions on cabotage, as it is called, are much stricter than ours are.

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How Much Is Racism?

If I had to pick the most prominent political blogs unaffiliated with news media, I would say the Huffington Post, Vox.com, and PowerLine. To the best of my knowledge PowerLine is the only one of those three blogs to make the cover of Time magazine. It is also the only conservative, Republican blog among those three.

I read PowerLine only very occasionally—perhaps three times in the last year. Two of those three times was during the rioting in Minneapolis. Since the blog’s authors reside in Minneapolis I thought they might have some particular insights into what was happening there. I didn’t find much that I didn’t already know.

The guys at PowerLine do a pretty fair job of expressing the conservative Republican point of view and Paul Mirengoff’s recent post on the director of the Centers for Disease Control’s proclamation that racism is a public health threat is no exception. I wanted to pass along one passage from the post:

For example, in reporting Walensky’s statement the Washington Post cites findings that “because of segregated housing, Black people are nearly four times more likely to die of pollution exposure that White people.” But to assume that housing patterns are the result of racism is to apply the dogma that all outcomes unfavorable to Blacks are due to racism.

Where Blacks live is the result of (1) where they want to live and (2) where they can afford to live. If Blacks want to live in upscale neighborhoods populated by Whites, but can’t afford to, we shouldn’t assume that racism is responsible. More likely, the Blacks in question haven’t done the things they needed to do — e.g., stay in school, avoid having kids too young, get and stay married — to afford the housing they want.

mostly to disagree with it. That is certainly the conservative, Republican point of view but I think it’s a grave over-simplification. It’s more complicated than that. While I believe that black people who “stay in school, avoid having kids too young, get and stay married” on average do better than those who do not, I think it’s a superficial analysis.

For example, in all of the ten states in which the most black people live (Florida, Texas, New York, Georgia, California, North Carolina, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio) the state contribution to the funding of public K-12 education is below the U. S. median. In practice that means that school funding is more dependent on local property taxes than would otherwise be the case. That is true both in Red States (Texas, Georgia, North Carolina) and Blue States (New York, California, and Illinois). In my view racism is among the reasons for that. That in turn is a contributing factor to poor schools where blackk people live. That’s what I mean by “more complicated”.

Illinois ranks dead last among the states in the state’s contribution to K-12 public education and I believe that racism is, at the very least, a contributing factor to that.

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About That Jobs Program…

In his Wall Street Journal column James Freeman highlights a Wharton study:

A new analysis of the president’s “American Jobs Plan” from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School finds that over the next decade the Biden scheme would reduce U.S. economic growth, capital stock, wages and hours worked. But there is something that the plan would increase—federal debt. In short, it’s a disaster for U.S. investors, workers and taxpayers.

The Wharton crew doesn’t think the results would get all that much better in succeeding years, with one significant exception. The analysis does see a benign impact on the federal budget after 2031 because the plan’s spending is scheduled to end while the new taxes are intended to last forever. But how often do massive Washington subsidy schemes fail to get renewed by Congress?

He goes on to quote from the study itself:

The decline in capital makes workers less productive despite the increase in productivity due to more infrastructure, dragging hourly wages down by 0.7 percent in 2031 and 0.8 percent in 2050. Overall, GDP is 0.9 percent lower in 2031 and 0.8 percent lower in 2050.

One of the problems is that much of what is being billed as “infrastructure” is in fact just consumption. That won’t result in increases in productivity. As Lincoln quipped no matter what you call it a tail is not a leg.

But there will be those who benefit from these spending programs: preferred vendors, SEIU union leaders, and lots of political backers. The promises that are being made will be enough to make these programs popular. At least for a while. If Mr. Biden is lucky, their popularity will hold out past the midterms.

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Did the Lockdowns Save Lives?

The editors of the Wall Street Journal commenting on the economic effects of the lockdowns in 2020 take an unsurprising stance:

As the U.S. economy reopens more fully, comparative data is emerging about the 50 states that illuminate how much of the economic harm was self-inflicted.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) recently published state personal income and GDP data for the fourth quarter and 2020 calendar year. Most states suffered a massive decline in GDP in 2020’s second quarter as governors followed the advice of public-health officials to shut down businesses to “flatten the curve.”

But the new data show that states that allowed businesses to reopen sooner, and maintained fewer restrictions for the rest of the year, recovered by year-end. Real GDP for private industries fell 1.3% nationally at an annual compounded rate between the first and fourth quarters, according to BEA.

Yet there was large variation among the states. Hawaii’s economy declined the most (-9.9%)—no surprise given its dependence on tourism. Wyoming (-6.6%) and other energy-producing states were also slow to bounce back. New York’s (-5%) recovery was third worst, and even New Jersey (-2.3%) and Connecticut (-0.3%) fared better. Utah performed the best, growing 4.3%. It also has the sixth lowest per capita Covid death rate.

Northeast states were slammed hardest in the spring, so governors in the region were understandably more cautious about easing business restrictions. Yet New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo kept many businesses shut all summer despite ample hospital capacity and fewer Covid cases. He let retail and restaurants in New York City partially reopen in the fall, but then reimposed a near-total lockdown in December. New York’s economy never awoke from its spring coma.

By contrast, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis let nearly all businesses stay open after May. Florida’s private GDP had shrunk only 1.1% by year-end, dragged down by weak international and domestic tourism. New York’s food and accommodation industry shrank more than twice as much as Florida’s and the most in the U.S.

Retail also recovered in most states during the summer and fall, thanks in part to online commerce and federal payments to individuals. States in the South and Southwest that reopened sooner—such as Utah (8.3%), Arkansas (5.7%), Arizona (4.9%) and Georgia (4.7%)—had the strongest retail growth from the first quarter. The biggest exception? New York (-8.8%). Even New Jersey saw a small retail uptick between the first and fourth quarters.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s business restrictions were the strictest in the Midwest. Her state’s private GDP also fell three times more than the Great Lakes region. Or consider California, whose private economy shrank 1.9% between the first and fourth quarters as Gov. Gavin Newsom gradually lifted restrictions last summer only to reimpose a stay-at-home order in November. By contrast, Arizona’s private GDP increased 1%, buoyed by construction, manufacturing and retail comebacks.

Democratic Governors began to ease business restrictions this January as cases ebbed, vaccines rolled out and Joe Biden became President. But the unemployment rates in California (8.5%) and New York (8.9%) remained significantly higher in February than the national 6.2% average. Unemployment in New York City was still 12.9%.

But that dodges the larger question: did the lockdowns save lives? The jury remains out on that question. Such answers as I have been able to find remain strongly politically motivated.

I searched in vain for any models of, for example, fatalities in New York with or without the lockdowns. Research, too, appears to be highly politically motivated.

I have long felt that morbidity and mortality due to SARS-CoV-2 was less related to policy that to other factors like population behaviors, demographics including age distribution and genetic variation, density, climate, and geography. It may be decades, centuries before we have conclusive answers if ever. We really need them now.

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Not a Seasonal Increase

The editors of the Wall Street Journal point out that the number of ‘encounters” at our southern border last month represented a substantial increase over the number in the same month of 2019:

The White House has tried to pass off the migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border as nothing more than a routine seasonal sojourn. “It happens every year,” President Biden said in a news conference last month. New York Rep. Ritchie Torres called the crisis “more of a cyclical occurrence than a unique consequence of the Biden Administration policy.”

Bad timing, as the latest data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows. CBP said this week that there were more than 172,300 encounters with migrants on the Southwest border in March, a 71% increase over February. That’s up from 103,731 in March 2019 and 50,347 in March 2018.

That includes a record 18,890 unaccompanied children, compared to 9,380 in March 2019 and 5,244 in March 2018. CBP also reported 53,623 encounters with family units last month, a 173% increase over February and the most since the peak of the 2019 border crisis. In 2020 the pandemic kept numbers low.

There is a seasonal element to this, but the current surge is a much more serious spike related to the incentives provided by Biden Administration rhetoric and policy. The U.S. now expels single adults under a pandemic emergency measure known as Title 42, but it allows children who cross the border illegally alone to stay. The Biden Administration has also released into the U.S. large numbers of families who crossed the border illegally with young children. Migrant parents recognize this as a chance to gain entry.

U.S. facilities for housing migrants are overcrowded and the border patrol is overwhelmed. The humanitarian crisis will continue to worsen unless the policy incentives change.

I would add that circumstances matter as well. In March 2019 the U. S. unemployment rate was 3.8%; now it’s 6% and some of the sectors in which it’s hardest to get jobs are the same ones in which these migrant job-seekers will be seeking employment. Additionally, immigrants represented 13.8% of the population in 2019. Now they represent more than 14%.

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The Keys to “Bidenomics”?

In his latest New York Times column David Brooks thinks he has discovered the golden thread that runs through the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 relief bill, its infrastructure plan, and its yet-to-be-released “family” plan:

This could be the Chinese century, with their dynamism and our decay. The unexpected combination of raw capitalism, authoritarianism and state direction of the economy could make China the dominant model around the globe. President Biden, Dunn said, believes that democracy needs to remind the world that it, too, can solve big problems. Democracy needs to stand up and show that we are still the future.

I asked Cecilia Rouse, the chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, where our vulnerabilities lie. It is in our public goods, she said, the degradation of our common life.

“The model of the past 40 years has been to rely on the private sector to carry the load, but that sector is not best suited to deliver certain public goods like work force training and infrastructure investment,” she told me. “These are places where there is market failure, which creates a role for government.”

Brian Deese, the director of Biden’s National Economic Council, said that Bidenomics has three key prongs: an effort to distribute money to those on the lower end of the income scale, an effort to use climate change as an opportunity to reinvent our energy and transportation systems, and an effort to replicate the daring of the moon shot by investing big-time in research and development.

Some people say this is like the New Deal. I’d say this is an updated, monster-size version of “the American System,” the 19th-century education and infrastructure investments inspired by Alexander Hamilton, championed by Henry Clay and then advanced by the early Republicans, like Abraham Lincoln. That was an unabashedly nationalist project, made by a youthful country, using an energetic government to secure two great goals: economic dynamism and national unity.

I don’t know that I have ever encountered a more drastic, untruthful reinterpretation of American history anywhere. Let’s start with the opening passage of the column:

What is the quintessential American act? It is the leap of faith.

I don’t know what the experience of Mr. Brooks’s immigrant ancestors was but I am pretty familiar with my own. “Act of faith” does not really characterize them. More like “couldn’t stay where they were and there was nowhere else for them to go”. I would wager that was the situation for Mr. Brooks’s ancestors as well. Whose ancestors does that describe? Certainly not those of Native Americans, the original Americans. They were just going to the next hunting ground in pursuit of game that they could see. No faith involved. It doesn’t describe the ancestors of most American blacks who were transported here against their wills in the holds of ships in chains. It doesn’t describe the ancestors of Virginians were were transported here as indentured servants to pay off debts or those of Georgians whose ancestors were transported here as prisoners, having been convicted of some crime.

It does describe my Wagner ancestors who bought tracts of land from land developers who came over to Germany and came to the U. S. in the 1820s without really knowing what they would find. They had both hope and faith but they didn’t rely on the government to do anything for them other than, perhaps, to leave them alone more than had been the case in their native Rhineland-Palatinate. But they were a distinct minority even among my ancestors who were mostly fleeing debts.

Onwards. Mr. Brooks does not, apparently, see the irony of admiring the Chinese for “raw capitalism, authoritarianism and state direction of the economy” without noting that until 1979 they had both authoritarianism and state direction of the economy and remained the country with the largest number of drastically poor people in the world.

“Public good”, as I’ve noted before, has a definition. It means a good (or service) that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Neither work force education nor most infrastructure fit that definition. If you don’t believe just google healthcare job certification, IT job certification, auto mechanic certification, or any of a dozen others. You will find a dizzying array of different possibilities. Clearly, there is no market failure there. Being most generous, perhaps they’re conflating market failure with a lack of willingness to pay. Those aren’t the same things.

When someone throws around terms that actually have established meanings like that one of two things is most likely. Either they’re ignorant or lying. Again, being generous I’ll go with ignorant. I think the syllogism goes something like “economists are smart people; economists use those terms; if I use those terms I’ll be a smart person”. That’s a major problem today but it’s not a new one. The Smothers Brothers lampooned it more than 50 years ago:

I see by your outfit that your are a cowboy
I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys
If you get an outfit you can be a cowbody, too.

So far I have seen nothing in an of the Biden Adminstration’s plans to “distribute money to those on the lower end of the income scale”. What I have seen is plans to pay NGOs and individuals to provide services for those people and to boost the ranks of union membership. I have also seen plans to pay companies among the ranks of approved bidders to build and repair roads, bridges, etc. Not much actual redistribution there, either, except from one group of well-heeled individuals to a different group of well-heeled individuals.

Now turning to Alexander Hamilton, I presume what he’s referring to is Mr. Hamilton’s “Report on Manufacturing”. The other components of the Hamilton Plan all had to do with public debt and are not really relevant to Bidenomics.

The “Report on Manufacturing” championed tariffs and subsidies to industry, mostly in the forms of roads and canals. I’m not sure what the 21st century equivalent would be but it certainly wouldn’t be subsidizing personal transportation. Interstate traffic is overwhelmingly personal transportation; less than a quarter is truck traffic. My view, as I have tried to make clear, is that building new roads and bridges is subsidizing the personal transportation of the 20th century and repairing existing roads and bridges is not much better. It will be interesting to see how the Biden Administration differentiates itself from the Trump Administration while adopting its views on tariffs and other issues.

In conclusion I honestly don’t know what the “quintessential American act” in 2021 would be or even if there is such a thing. 20 or 30 years ago I would have said that setting out to make it on your own and to persevere despite obstacles was the quintessential American act. None of my immigrant ancestors expected anything they didn’t pay for. Neither did my parents who were not only the first individuals in each of their families to get post-graduate degrees, they were the first to graduate from college, high school, or even from grade school. Neither did my parents or great-grandparents. Neither did Huck Finn or Tom Joad, in their own ways quintessentially American characters. I think that was a different America.

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Why Didn’t the Trump Tax Cuts Work?

I actually agree with Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times column, at least at a high level. In detail I have some quibbles. His latest column is a reflection on “Trump’s signature policy”, i.e. his tax cuts. One of my quibbles is that I don’t think that was his signature policy or, at least, it was only one among a number of signature policies. If you had to pick one, solitary signature policy for him, I think it would have to be “the Wall”, about which I shrugged. I agree that there’s a problem; I just never thought that a wall could solve it or even mitigate it. But that’s a digression.

In considering why the tax cuts failed, your first step is to demonstrate that they did, indeed, fail, and IMO the evidence that Dr. Krugman presents is sufficient:

The rationale for the corporate tax cut was, however, quite different. It wasn’t about individual work effort; instead, it was about incentives to invest in the United States as opposed to other nations. That’s clearly a real issue in a world of mobile capital. And the tax cut’s advocates argued that lower profit taxes would bring higher investment here, leading over time to faster growth and higher wages.

At the time I accepted this logic, at least as a qualitative matter. I still thought the tax cut was a bad idea, but that was because I believed that the inflow of capital would be smaller and take much longer than the plan’s advocates claimed, and as a result wouldn’t be enough to compensate for the loss of revenue.

But I was, it turned out, being too generous. As a 2019 analysis by the International Monetary Fund found, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act ended up having no visible effect at all on business investment, which rose no more than you would have expected given the growth in demand.

at least for the cut in the corporate income tax. The evidence he produces for the failure of the cut in the personal income tax to incentivize higher personal productivity is mostly hand-waving—another quibble. Since I was always skeptical that the beneficial effects of the cut in the personal income tax rates would outweigh the adverse effects of increasing the debt, I don’t feel any need to defend it.

He goes on to sketch several explanations for why business capital investment showed little increase that wouldn’t have happened without the tax cuts include:

  • A tax on profits isn’t a a tax on capital

    Imagine a company considering whether to borrow money to invest in some new project. If there were no profits tax, it would proceed if and only if it expected the rate of return on the project to exceed the interest rate on the loan. Now suppose that there is, say, a 35 percent tax on profits. How does this change the company’s decision? It doesn’t.

    Why? Because interest on the loan is tax-deductible. If investment is financed with debt, profit taxes only fall on returns over and above the interest rate, which means that they shouldn’t affect investment choices.

    OK, not all investment is debt-financed, although that itself poses a puzzle: There’s a clear tax advantage to issuing debt rather than selling stock, and the question of why companies don’t use more leverage is subtle and hard. The immediate point, however, is that the corporate profits tax isn’t a tax on capital, it’s a tax on a particular aspect of corporate financial structure. Analyses — mine included! — that treat it simply as raising the cost of capital are being far too generous to tax cutters.

  • Business investment isn’t that sensitive to the cost of capital, anyway

    Suppose we ignore the deductibility of interest for a moment, and consider a company that for some reason finances all its investment with equity. Imagine also that investors know they can earn a rate of return r in the global marketplace. In that case they’ll require that the company earn r/ (1-t) on its investments, where t is the rate of profit taxes. This is how advocates of the Trump tax cut looked at the world in 2017.

    Under these conditions, cutting t, by reducing the required rate of return — in effect, by cutting the cost of capital — should induce corporations to increase the U.S. capital stock. For example, the Tax Foundation predicted that the capital stock would rise by 9.9 percent, or more than $6 trillion.

    But these predictions missed a key point: most business assets are fairly short-lived. Equipment and software aren’t like houses, which have a useful life measured in decades if not generations. They’re more like cars, which generally get replaced after a few years — in fact, most business investment is even less durable than cars, generally wearing out or becoming obsolete quite fast.

    And demand for short-lived assets isn’t very sensitive to the cost of capital. The demand for houses depends hugely on the interest rate borrowers have to pay; the demand for cars only depends a bit on the interest rate charged on car loans. That’s why monetary policy mainly works through housing, not consumer durables or business investment. And the short lives of business assets dilute the already weak effect of taxes on investment decisions.

  • Monopoly

    Financial industry types often talk about the FAANGs: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google — tech companies that loom large in the stock market. These companies look very different from past market leaders like General Motors in its heyday; it’s much harder to link their value to the tangible assets they own.

    True, there are more of those assets than are visible to the naked eye. For example, Amazon’s warehouses employ a vast number of workers. Still, the value of these companies mainly reflects their market power, the quasi-monopoly positions they’ve established in their respective domains.

    There are many issues relating to this market power, but in the current context what matters is that taxes on monopoly profits are as close as you can get to revenue-raising without side effects. They certainly don’t deter investment, because monopoly profits aren’t a return on capital.

    And the profit tax is at this point largely a tax on monopoly or quasi-monopoly profits. Officials I’ve spoken to cite estimates that around 75 percent of the tax base consists of “excess” returns, over and above the normal return on capital, and that this percentage has been rising over time. Loosely speaking, this means that most of a corporate tax cut just goes to swelling monopoly profits, with any incentive effects limited to the shrinking fraction of corporate income that actually reflects returns on investment. That I.M.F. study of the Trump tax cut suggested that rising monopoly power might help explain its lack of impact.

Of those three I think that the third is by far the weakest for a simple reason. 99.999% of companies aren’t FAANG companies and aren’t monopolies. But it does support something else I said: I think the tax cuts should have been much more narrowly crafted, more targeted than they were.

And I think the second point is by far the strongest. The correlation between business capital investment and company profits (and therefore taxes on company profits) is empirically weak. Not to mention that established companies tend to do relatively little capital investment while start-ups do a lot but, since they don’t have any profits to tax, cutting the corporate tax rates have little effect on that investment.

My reasons for supporting the cut in the corporate tax rates were two:

  • Our higher taxes placed the U. S. at a competitive disadvantage not just with the Irelands but with the UK, France, and Germany.
  • The corporate tax is an inefficient tax.

Cutting corporate taxes was a success in both of those but only in those.

But what about the increased incomes among the poor and minorities during Trump’s term of office (I hear someone ask). I attribute that entirely to the tighter labor market during the period which had a lot to do with his immigration policies and little or nothing to do with the tax cuts.

As you might expect Dr. Krugman is overly sanguine about the prospects for the Biden Administration. What I think will happen is that, just as Trump’s tax cuts were insufficiently targeted, so will whatever tax increases the Biden Administration puts into place and for analogous reasons.

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Three Scenarios for 2040

I recommend this piece at the BBC, commenting on the same Global Trends 2040 study I pointed to yesterday. Read the whole thing—it’s not long. But I’ll focus on three scenarios they extract from the study.

“Optimistic” scenario

This involves the US and its allies harnessing technology and economic growth to deal with domestic and international challenges, while China and Russia’s crackdowns (including in Hong Kong) stifle innovation and strengthen the appeal of democracy.

Although it’s a possibility I would not make book on that scenario. I think it exhibits the confidence in technology I have only seen from people who barely passed high school trig.

“Adrift” scenario

“The world adrift scenario” imagines market economies never recovering from the Covid pandemic, becoming domestically deeply divided and living in an international system that is “directionless, chaotic and volatile” as international rules and institutions are ignored by countries, corporations and other groups.

That sounds a lot more like the world we’re living in. Think of it as an “if this goes on…” scenario.

Fantasy scenario

“Tragedy and Mobilisation” imagines a world in the midst of a global catastrophe in the early 2030s thanks to climate change, famine and unrest – but this in turn leads to a new global coalition, driven in part by social movements, to address the problems.

That’s what is known in the trade as “time inconsistency”. For some reason people respond in very different ways from the way they responded to the last time we faced major economic downturn, war, and environmental pressures all at the same time.

My reaction to all of these scenarios was how America-centric do you need to be not to consider a scenario in which China continues its rise? Or one in which a major war breaks out in East Asia which finds the West too self-absorbed to muster any will to do anything about?

Keep in mind that the report was produced by intelligence professionals. You can find that heartening or terrifying, depending.

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Portman on Controlling the Border

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has a post a RealClearPolitics in which he characterizes the situation at our southern border and presents some suggestions for addressing it. Here’s his characterization:

More than 100,000 migrants were apprehended in February, the most in 15 years. This included more than 9,500 unaccompanied kids, a 200% increase from this time last year. March numbers will be even higher, easily surpassing the surges in 2014 and 2019. And it hasn’t reached its peak.

The reason for the crisis is clear. The Biden administration’s policy changes encouraged families and unaccompanied children, mostly from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to come to our southern border and apply for asylum. Traffickers are telling families they can come into the U.S. if they pay to make the treacherous trip north, then apply for asylum at the border. Under the Biden policies, there is a lot of truth to that.

The legal process to grant asylum takes several years, with a 1.2 million-person backlog and only about a 15% success rate for asylum applicants. Most waiting for immigration court dates or appeals are already in the United States and many do not show up for their court dates. People know there is very little chance they will be deported. In fact, more than 95% of the families who were released into the United States pending their asylum decision during the last surge in 2019 are still here.

which is followed by his prescription. You will see some similarities between what he proposes and ideas you’ve read around here:

First, support the Border Patrol and finish the wall system already paid for, closing gaps and deploying badly needed technology.

Second, give families and children seeking asylum relief a way to apply in their own country or a neighboring country rather than making the treacherous trip north. The Biden administration should do this by reviving the Safe Third Country agreements with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries and working with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees so that individuals can seek asylum and are resettled in the country that makes the most sense for their situation – be it a neighboring country or the United States.

Third, the Biden administration should stop releasing children and families into the U.S. and instead restart and expand a pilot program that allows for due process through a rapid adjudication of asylum claims at the border, starting with the most recent cases. This will require additional resources, but it is worth it because it will create a powerful disincentive for future migration if people know they will be in custody on the border while their claims are being resolved.

Fourth, because American jobs are the magnet, the E-Verify program, which checks if a worker is legally eligible to work in the United States, must be made mandatory for all businesses, backed up by employer sanctions.

All four of these proposals would reduce the current incentives, or “pull” factors, to cross the border.

Congress and the administration should also provide additional smart development aid to the Northern Triangle countries to help with the long-term “push factors” that encourage people to leave their homes. This new assistance must be conditioned upon transparency and adherence to the rule of law, as well as assistance in the asylum process.

There are several things I find missing from that prescription. One of them is more stringent enforcement of E-verify. That will require expanded funding. Another is a recognition of the difficulty of doing anything about the “push” factors. I have consulted with individuals with considerable expertise regarding the “Northern Triangle” and they assure me that elites in those countries are fully mobilized to absorb any level of additional funding the U. S. might provide, line their own pockets, and do little to nothing to repair the broken economies and institutions in those countries. It will take some creativity and novel approaches as well as substantial attention to do anything material about them and, sadly, neither political party is particularly long on creativity, novelty, or attention these days. We can’t bomb Guatemala into becoming a safer, more prosperous country.

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Signs of Spring


One of the signs of spring in our garden is that the lovage starts to come up. Lovage is a medieval herb that grows so fast you can nearly see it growing. It will ultimately be as much as eight feet tall.

Lovage has a very strong celery flavor—too strong for green salads but I’ve heard of people who use it in sandwiches which I don’t think would be palatable to me. I use it in soups, stews, in braciole, and, in very small amounts, in my potato salad. My potato salad recipe calls for both celery seed and parsley and lovage serves as a replacement for both.

Lovage is a perennial, i.e. it comes back year after year.

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