Wednesday, May 31, 2017

NPR Summarizes Illegal US Invasion of Panama with Charming Anecdote

On Tuesday’s edition (5/30) of NPR’s morning news podcast Up First, NPR reported on the death of former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega. Here’s how hosts Steve Inskeep and David Greene covered the story:
Inskeep: And one final note, Manuel Noriega, the former leader of Panama, has died.
Greene: Isn’t that a name that has just remained on our consciousness for so many years? He was the, a strongman in the 1980s–first an ally of the United States–but then really an obstacle. He was accused of interfering with an election that, uh, didn’t go his way.
Inskeep: And the United States military under President George H.W. Bush removed him from power in 1989, blasting rock music at an annoying volume, at the building where Manuel Noriega took shelter. He spent years afterward in and out of prison.
Now, everything in the NPR story is true as I understand it. But it comes with one tiny little omission:
There was an invasion.
To be more specific, President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama unilaterally, without seeking any approval from Congress as required by the Constitution, without any legal authority from the United Nations, and in the face of outright opposition from the Organization of American States. This meant the war was plainly illegal both under US law and under international law. It was a war crime.
And like any war, it had casualties. A number of US and Panamanian troops died in the conflict, along with a disputed number of Panamanian civilians–estimates range from hundreds to tens of thousands. According to survivors, the victims of one of the most thorough bombing raids were promptly buried in mass graves.
The rock music episode only came later, after some of this bloodshed had passed. Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy, and the US government decided that was a line they wouldn’t cross. So they laid siege with rock music.
In the NPR version, this curious ending is the only piece of the story we get. The listener is left to wonder precisely how Noriega found himself in such a precarious position that the US could successfully weaponize Van Halen, without first using weapons of a more deadly sort.
Of course, I understand that the podcast format has time constraints–and this is especially true of Up First, which typically runs around 10 minutes. But even so, it seems to be a problem when the underlying facts are so obscured by euphemisms (“removed from power”) and cherry-picking that the audience has little idea what actually occurred.
The episode also seems like a perfect thumbnail sketch of the way that media bias usually works to distort public perception on important issues–especially in the realm of foreign policy. In most cases, the problem isn’t that mainstream outlets overtly lie; rather, they simply choose to emphasize the particular facts that fit a chosen narrative. The rest can be downplayed or just omitted entirely, as NPR did here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Trump Mulls Tariffs on Solar Panel Imports

It’s not official yet, but Yahoo! Finance is reporting that the Trump administration is considering putting emergency “safeguard” tariffs on solar panel imports from China.
Naturally, the move will be framed as a necessary action to protect US manufacturers from unfair competition from overseas. But it will also harm US consumers by making solar power more expensive than it needs to be.
It’s a terrible idea, but it’s an excellent example for illustrating the harms caused by protectionism. Let’s go through it.
Winners and Losers
Competition in the US solar industry has led to an intense price war between firms. And as the situation stands now, US solar panel manufacturers have been unable to keep up with their Chinese competitors, leading to multiple high-profile bankruptcies.
But while price wars are unpleasant for companies, they are a great thing for consumers. In the case of solar, prices have eroded rapidly over time and are nearly within range of conventional electricity sources.
This will benefit all consumers to some extent, as the emergence of a low-cost alternative energy resource will drive down average electricity costs overall. It’s also a major boon for environmentalists who advocate for a shift towards renewable energy sources.
So under the current environment, US manufacturers have been losing money, and US consumers and environmentalists are reaping the benefits.
Trump’s emergency tariffs would flip this situation on its head. A tariff would artificially raise prices on Chinese solar panels and make US panels more cost-competitive–allowing those companies to return to profitability. But consumers would suffer as the overall cost of solar energy gets significantly increased with the stroke of a pen.
Is “Unfair Trade” a Problem?
Trump’s tariff decision is a response to the complaints made by US solar panel manufacturers about China’s “unfair trade” practices.
In this case, the issue is that the Chinese government has subsidized its domestic solar industry. Since the Chinese companies are getting part of their expenses effectively covered by the government, they can sell their end product at a lower price. If the US manufacturers don’t receive comparable subsidies, then they wouldn’t be able to compete successfully.
It makes sense why someone might describe that situation as unfair. However, it’s unlikely to be so straightforward in practice. Companies in both countries are likely subsidized to some degree, and then the subsidy levels would have to be compared against each other. We’d also need to decide what counts as a subsidy. Do tax breaks count? What about a new highway the government built out to the manufacturing facility that lowered transportation costs? You can see how things could quickly get complicated.
Fortunately, we don’t need to get into the weeds to determine the right policy solution. Even if China was massively subsidizing its solar panel industry, the ideal policy would still be zero tariffs.
This will seem like a strange outcome at first, but it becomes clearer if we see some examples.
Scenario 1: A More Efficient Competitor
For the first case, suppose the US company is unsubsidized and can sell its solar panels for $5/Watt. Then, a new unsubsidized Chinese company enters the market. Due to its uniquely efficient manufacturing process, the Chinese firm can make a profit selling solar panels for $2/Watt, even after accounting for shipping.
In this case, clearly we would not want to have the government step in with tariffs to help the US company. The US firm will likely fail because they can’t profit at those price levels, but that’s how the market works. The transition for the workers and owners will be unfortunate, but ultimately, they’ll put their talents to work elsewhere. Meanwhile, US consumers will go on benefiting from $2/Watt solar, thanks to the efficient production techniques in China.
Scenario 2: The Generous Chinese Taxpayer
Suppose the US company is the same as it was above and still needs to sell at $5/Watt. But now it faces a different Chinese company that is heavily subsidized by the Chinese government. The Chinese company in this case isn’t more efficient than the US firm, but the subsidies are so large that it can still afford to sell solar panels at $2/Watt, undercutting the US firm.
The correct policy response is the same in this case–nothing. Here, the Chinese company’s competitive advantage is not efficient manufacturing; it’s the very generous Chinese taxpayers, who are subsidizing most of its operations. The US firm will likely fail as before, but the US consumer will still enjoy the benefits of $2/Watt solar.
In effect, what’s happening here is that the Chinese taxpayers are subsidizing the US consumers’ purchases of solar panels. This may be a bad arrangement for US solar companies, and it’s certainly a terrible setup for Chinese taxpayers.
But it’s an unambiguously good deal for the US consumer. And the US government should not step in to stop this deal from continuing.
Regardless of which of these scenarios is closer to reality, the ideal policy prescription remains the same. The US consumer shouldn’t be punished to help out domestic corporations, and no tariffs should be imposed.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Trump Abandons Detente with Russia

According to one of Trump’s senior advisers, improving relations with Russia is no longer a priority for the Trump administration. Sanctions will not be lifted and might even be increased. Antiwar.com has the story:

Aide: Trump Won’t Roll Back US Sanctions Against Russia
This is bad news for several reasons. First and foremost, Trump’s relatively friendly stance towards Russia was the most useful position he offered on the campaign trail. And he often presented it in a common sense way that had a chance to actually resonate with the American people. In his words, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with… Russia?
Indeed, during the campaign, it seemed like the most likely problem with Trump’s foreign policy towards Russia would be that he’d take it to far the other direction. Instead of just cooling tensions and resuming a normal, sanction-free trading relationship, Trump seemed interested in having an outright alliance with Russia to help in the War on Terror. This would have been problematic, in large part because it probably would have been stepping up the demonstrably counterproductive War on Terror overall.
Now, it appears those concerns are no longer necessary.
As the scandals and investigations surrounding Russia have continued to dominate the news cycle, the Trump administration has decided to avoid friendly gestures with Russia, including those that happen to be good policy.
It also appears the Obama administration and/or the national security state’s strategy for combating Trump was an effective one. As The Daily Beast put it in December 2016 when reporting on the US response to the alleged Russian hacking, “the goal is to hem in” the Trump administration with respect to Russia.* In other words, their objective was to put up enough roadblocks to prevent Trump from moving in a peaceful direction.
The combination of new sanctions at the end of 2016 and a seemingly endless stream of controversial news stories involving Russia and Trump based on anonymous leaks–often hyped beyond all reason–have succeeded in making Russia a politically toxic issue. So at least for now, detente is dead.
*To be clear, I wouldn’t recommend this article beyond pulling out this quote. The remainder of it assumes, with total certainty, that Russia did everything it is accused and then debates the best way to escalate things from there.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sister of Manchester Bomber: He Wanted “Revenge”

A new Wall Street Journal profile of the suspected Manchester, UK terrorist Salman Abedi offers our first clues into the motive for the deadly attack. And while we still don’t have all the details, it appears that the motivation was not religion.
The WSJ piece is behind a paywall, but Zero Hedge has written up a useful summary.
The Blowback Theory vs. “Call It Radical Islam”
For those that may not be familiar, the blowback theory of terrorism holds that acts of terrorism against Western targets are usually motivated by revenge, not religion.
In particular, terrorist attacks are seen as a violent reaction against (primarily) the foreign policy actions of the US and other Western governments. In this view, terrorism is not spontaneous or mysterious; it is a response to particular wrongs, or perceived wrongs, perpetrated by the US or the West against Muslims (or some other group of people) that the would-be terrorist identifies with.
The blowback theory is intuitive and the majority of high profile terrorists who have explained their rationale cite Western foreign policy as their justification. In spite of this, however, the theory is not widely accepted or even discussed by US politicians or the US media. This is why Congressman Ron Paul became an overnight sensation 10 years ago when he raised the blowback theory of terrorism on a Presidential debate stage. Many viewers were hearing it for the first time.
The most prominent alternative theory to explain why terrorists become terrorists is to essentially blame the religion of Islam. This is where you get the common and impotent plea from Republican lawmakers to “Call it Radical Islam”. However, the precise mechanism for how Islam leads someone to become a terrorist is rarely discussed in detail. The general theory appears to be that the more devout a Muslim is, the more prone they are to violence.
The Case of the Manchester Bomber
Getting back to the specific case at hand, it’s not altogether clear what the tipping point was that set Salman Abedi off on the course of violence. But we do learn some important details about his activities that help paint a picture.
The first interesting fact is that Abedi is actually a veteran of the Libyan Civil War in 2011. Although born in the UK, Abedi and his family are of Libyan descent and apparently still had some ties there. Thus, in 2011, he and his father apparently joined one of the militia groups fighting against the government of Muammar Gaddafi. This placed Abedi on the same side as the US regime change operation there, and it also put him on the side as hardcore Islamist groups that were fighting Gaddafi. It’s not clear whether Abedi might have came into contact with extremist groups during the war, but it is a possibility that this might have helped influence him towards committing terrorism.
Another significant event in Abedi’s life was the death of one of his best friends in 2016 who was also of Libyan dissent. The friend, Abdul Wahab Hafidah, was run down and stabbed to death in Manchester, and Abedi viewed the attack as a hate crime against Muslims. One family friend recounted that he heard Abedi vowing he would get revenge at Hafidah’s funeral.
Finally, the profile also presented the assessment of Abedi’s motives offered by his sister Jomana. Jomana said her brother “saw children—Muslim children—dying everywhere, and wanted revenge. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge.”
That is about the cleanest articulation of the blowback rationale available, and my own confirmation bias leads me to prefer it. But it seems equally plausible that the death of his dear friend might have transformed his views into something deadly–particularly if he already had concerns about how Muslims were being treated in Britain beforehand.
Whichever explanation is true, it’s important to note that neither of them have much to do with religion. In both versions, being Muslim is presented as a part of Abedi’s identity–much in the way that being American or being Latino might be part of someone’s identity. Thus, his anger was derived from the fact that he felt Muslims, as a broad group of people, were being mistreated. The resulting violence is more intentionally indiscriminate in the Manchester case, but we should note that this is the same basic impulse that led thousands of Americans to join the military after 9/11. “Their people” had been attacked and they were seeking justice.
So in one narrow sense, someone could still say he was motivated by Islam because it was part of his identity. But the nature of the motivation does not appear to be based on some unique characteristic of the religion; that is, it’s not as if he carried out the attack because verse X of the Koran says to kill infidels. This is a critical nuance.
To make things more complicated, near the end of his life, Abedi did become noticeably religious and he adopted the suicide bombing tactic employed regularly by ISIS. Even so, the timeline and quotes above suggest that a radical version of Islam was the brand of the attack, not the underlying cause.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Trump’s Saudi Speech Filled with Alternative Facts

This weekend, President Trump gave a major foreign policy speech in Saudi Arabia. The good news is that Trump’s remarks were not a direct attack on Islam. The bad news is everything else.
The speech was the first that Trump has given abroad, and it was also the first addressed to the Muslim world. It had an odd collection of themes. It was somehow conciliatory and preachy at the same time. Trump even managed to channel the always popular George W. Bush by declaring, “This is a battle between Good and Evil.”
It wasn’t all biblical oversimplifications though. If you know some of the recent history with respect to the Saudi Arabia and terrorism, it also offered some very dark comedy.
Here are a few of the highlights.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
In an early effort to highlight the cooperation that is already happening between the US and the allied dictatorships of the Middle East, Trump attempted to list out the contributions being made. Here’s what he said [emphasis added]:
Many are already making significant contributions to regional security: Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.The Lebanese Army is hunting ISIS operatives who try to infiltrate their territory. Emirati troops are supporting our Afghan partners. In Mosul, American troops are supporting Kurds, Sunnis and Shias fighting together for their homeland. Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner. Our longstanding partnership with Kuwait and Bahrain continue to enhance security in the region. And courageous Afghan soldiers are making tremendous sacrifices in the fight against the Taliban, and others, in the fight for their country.
The structure of this paragraph is designed to highlight all the useful actions being undertaken against terrorist groups in the region. And earlier in the speech, Trump characterized terrorism in a pretty standard way as actions that target and kill innocent people. As he put it, “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who wish to obliterate life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
The problem is that the paragraph above casually lumps in the Houthis with ISIS, as if their motivations and actions are more or less the same. This is not at all true.
ISIS ultimately grew out of the Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgent group. They espouse an extreme, fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam, often called Salafism or Wahhabism. They openly advocate a civilizational war between Sunni Muslims and the rest of the world, and they use terrorist attacks as a strategy to try to provoke this outcome. ISIS has claimed responsibility for almost all of the high profile terrorist attacks that have struck Western targets in the past couple of years.
Notably, ISIS and Al Qaeda share much of the same ideology. The groups are at war with each other in Syria, but the dispute is largely a question of strategy.
In contrast with ISIS’s global ambitions, the Houthis are a distinctly national movement inside of Yemen. The Houthis follow a version of Shia Islam that is not at all similar to ISIS, and they have not carried out any terrorist attacks against Western targets. The group took power at the beginning of 2015, overthrowing an unpopular Saudi-allied dictator in the process. (Technically, this dictator was elected, but he was the only one on the ballot.) In response, the Saudis–with US backing–launched a war against the Houthis to try to put the dictator back in charge, or in the Saudi’s parlance, to restore the legitimate government of Yemen.
Clearly, ISIS and the Houthis are not similar movements. They emerged from very different contexts, have totally different ambitions, attack different targets, and have an entirely different religion. Another inconvenient fact, the Houthis are actually at war with Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.
So to recap, according to Trump’s speech, Jordanian pilots are helping combat terrorism by bombing ISIS. And the Saudi’s are helping combat terrorism by fighting a group that doesn’t attack the West but does fight against Al Qaeda.
In other words, he nailed it. Let’s move on.
Making Orwell Proud Again
The unintentionally humorous parts of the speech came when Trump praised the creation of two new collaborative programs to fight terrorism. Here’s Trump:
Later today, we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology — located right here, in this central part of the Islamic World.
I am proud to announce that the nations here today will be signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism, called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center — co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
It’s strange to have Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States take a leading role in combating extremism and terrorist ideologies. After all, there is strong evidence to believe that these same countries have promoted the terrorist groups in question.
One compelling piece of evidence for this comes from the Saudis themselves. In a report originally written up at The Financial Times (FT has a firm paywall, but it’s cited here), the Saudi foreign minister told Secretary of State John Kerry the following:
Daesh [ISIS] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa,
The Da’wa refers to the dominant Shia political faction in Iraq, which is friendly with Iran. Essentially, the Saudis were angry that Iraq War 2 had the effect of putting Shia and Iranian-friendly factions in power in Baghdad. In context, they were also upset by the Iran Nuclear Deal because the sanctions relief promised in that deal would allow the Iranian economy to expand rapidly and give Iran more prominence and influence in the region. The Saudis see Iran as a major regional rival, and they view any increase in Iran’s power as reducing their own.
Anyways, in response to these negative trendlines, the foreign minister said the Saudis helped back ISIS as a strategic response.
The other strong evidence comes from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the government released a DIA memo from the fall of 2012 that provided an analysis of the situation in Syria and Iraq. Note that this was before the formal rise of ISIS. This was the relevant quote:
THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY [WHO] SUPPORT THE [SYRIAN] OPPOSITION… THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME…
This extraordinary quote notes that the West and the Gulf States–the countries Trump is addressing in the speech–armed the opposition, knowing that it risked creating a “salafist principality”, that is, an Islamic state. And instead of being a serious calamity, this was actually an interim goal, because it would weaken Assad.
In practice, this didn’t turn out so well.
Blame Iran
Early in Trump’s speech, he offered a line that was apparently designed to preemptively address concerns about the fact that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with an abysmal human rights record:
We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals.
It was the old “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” argument, just with slightly new verbiage. So what if Saudi Arabia executes a lot of people and is starving millions of helpless people in Yemen; we’re not seeking perfection, after all.
Whatever the merits of this strategy may be, it’s clear that the standard is not applied evenly. It seems that certain countries are permanently affixed to Trump’s enemy list no matter what shared interests exist. Near the end of the speech, Trump made this abundantly clear:
But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of [drum roll?] Iran.
(In the actual speech, there was no apparent pause before the country was named. It had to be a suspenseful moment for the audience though–I can think of quite a few countries that would have been better suited to fill in the blank.)
That’s right. In Trump’s version of reality, Iran is the greatest promoter of terrorism. And this is so, even though it’s clear from the rest of the speech that terrorism is mostly referring to the indiscriminate actions of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda–groups that Iran is literally fighting a war against in Iraq and Syria (on the US’s side).
Iran is also alleged to be primarily responsible for the region’s instability, but in fact, this honor probably belongs to the US. After all, Iran didn’t launch Iraq War 2. Iran clearly had no interest in promoting an uprising against its ally in Syria. And Iran didn’t embark on a war of choice to overthrow the government of Libya and throw that country into chaos.
But in Trump’s foreign policy speech, none of this history made an appearance.
Bottom Line
Instead of bringing a radical change to the US’s failed foreign policy, President Trump seems content to stick with the usual false narratives offered by US leaders. So Iran remains enemy number 1, and Saudi Arabia is a vital partner in combating extremism.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trump Impeachment – Pros and Cons

The campaign to impeach President Trump began immediately upon his inauguration. That’s not an exaggeration. On January 20, 2017, The Washington Post reported on a movement to rally support for impeaching Donald Trump under the little known Emoluments Clause.
While that case never seemed to gain much traction, some of Trump’s recent actions with respect to the FBI have sparked growing calls for his impeachment. The effort is still in its early stages to be sure. But Trump’s impressive knack for making bad decisions, even on purely strategic grounds, seems likely to encourage it in the near future.
For this reason, the possibility is worth evaluating.
Pros of Impeachment
The first question to consider here is whether Trump does deserve to be impeached under the Constitution.
The answer is almost certainly yes. The trouble is that it is equally certain he will not be impeached on those grounds.
Grounds for Impeachment
There are a few different options one could choose as reasons for Trump’s impeachment. The most clear-cut case comes from Trump’s illegal Tomahawk missile strikes against the government of Syria, in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack. This episode plainly violated international law as an aggressive military action by the US. It was also clearly unauthorized under the constitution.
Of course, Presidents have routinely tested and pushed the limits of their war-making authority. However, the Syria strike stands out as even more indefensible than normal.
When President Obama carried out his various unconstitutional foreign policy actions–for example, drone strikes outside of war zones, the war against ISIS–he would generally argue that he actually did have authority under a resolution Congress passed back in 2001 after 9/11. That resolution authorized the president to go after Al Qaeda and associated forces. The problem was that the president effectively argued it justified going after groups that didn’t even exist at the time the resolution was passed, and in the case of ISIS, that it can be used to attack groups that are explicitly at war with Al Qaeda. In other words, the argument doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny, but because there is bipartisan support for all of these unconstitutional policies, it didn’t really get questioned.
With the Syria strike, however, that argument becomes entirely implausible. The Assad government plainly has nothing to do with Al Qaeda other than fight a war against them, and they have not made any effort to attack Americans during the conflict. So the 2001 AUMF can’t provide any cover at all. And since Trump didn’t bother to get any Congressional approval of the strike, the strike is clearly illegal. Such an abuse of authority would clearly constitute a legitimate grounds for impeachment.
On this score alone, it would be a positive thing for Trump to be impeached. As I argued in the case of James Comey’s termination, it tends to be a good thing when people that deserve to get fired actually do get fired. This is the same argument with a different antagonist.
Normalizing Impeachment
Over the 2016 and 2017 political cycle, Trump has been routinely accused of “normalizing ______” with his rhetoric. Depending on the article and event in question, that blank will be filled with something bad–bigotry, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, or something along these lines.
That said, it is often overlooked that Trump is also normalizing some distinctly positive things. For instance, a growing number of people now assume that the White House is probably lying as their default position. We don’t know if this skepticism will carry over effectively to the next president, but it’s safe to say Trump has given it a boost.
Similarly, it would not be a bad thing if impeaching politicians was normalized as well. I’m not sure how far we’d need to go back to find a president that didn’t commit an obvious impeachable offense. Given that abuse of power is so common, it would be useful if Congress grew accustomed to using the legal remedy the constitution prescribes to address it.
A Legitimate Reason?
While the Syria strikes offer a strong case for impeachment against Trump, that’s not the case that would actually end up being used.
Instead, at the moment, the leading candidate would appear to be the possibility that Trump tried to interfere with a federal investigation–specifically the investigation of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
It’s still far too soon to say with any certainty whether there’s merit to this case. Right now, the main evidence we have is a memo read over the phone to a New York Times reporter, apparently alleging this influence. The trouble is that the memo is written by a former FBI Director who recently said under oath that no such influence occurred. Clearly, one part of this story doesn’t fit together, but we don’t know which.
In any case, we can be somewhat grateful that these are the types of issues that appear to be getting the most impeachment attention. This is good news because it actually could be a real offense. Trump wouldn’t be the first to do it, and it would not be the worst thing he’s done, but it is a problem if White House is trying to influence particular investigations.
Cons of Impeachment
The items above may seem to offer compelling reasons to be optimistic about Trump, there is one major downside that cancels it out.
What Comes Next?
If and when Trump gets removed from office, the job would go to VP Mike Pence. It’s very likely that Pence would be a more competent and politically savvy administrator than Trump has been. Unlike Trump so far, Pence might actually be able to secure passage on some of his policy ideas.
That almost sounds like a good thing. And indeed, if Pence had better ideas than Trump, it would be. But that’s not the case.
Pence is a fairly typical Republican in most respects. That means he’s bad on the drug war, wants to crack down on immigration, and opposes Obamacare–but does not understand the issue well enough to support a real solution to it. On these issues, he and Trump appear to be basically on the same unpleasant page.
But there is one issue where Pence was substantially worse than Trump during the campaign. That’s the question of Syria and Russia. During the VP debate last year, Pence confidently laid out a horrifying policy approach including safe zones and asserting “strong leadership”–which is a favorite American euphemism for belligerence.
At the time, this was substantially more belligerent than Trump. Since Trump’s Syria strike, the gap has definitely narrowed. Even so, Pence still seems a surer bet for confrontation with Russia and Syria than Trump. After all, Trump bombed Syria only after a tragedy gave him a pretext, however flimsy and unproven. Pence was advocating for outright confrontation even when no comparable pretext existed.
The bottom line is that if you’re worried about what policies Trump is going to implement, you should probably be even more worried about Pence. He advocates many of the same things, but he might be politically competent enough to actually implement them.
If this feels like a strange argument, it’s useful to consider the following analogy offered by economist Bob Murphy. If you could vote to decide who would run the Death Star, would you choose Jabba the Hutt or Darth Vader?
The upshot: Sometimes incompetence is a virtue.
Conclusion
Putting it all together, it’s tough to say where this leaves us. On the one hand, Trump really does deserve to be impeached. On the other hand, it might leave us in an even more precarious position than we are currently.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Washington Post Cites Joke As Factual Evidence for Russiagate

This might be a new low.
The Story
The Washington Post obtained a transcript and a recording of a private conversation among high-ranking House Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. The portion of the conversation that has been released is mostly about Ukraine, but it also discusses Russia’s efforts to influence Ukrainian politics and US politics, albeit briefly.
Specifically, near the end of the conversation, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says the following, as quoted by the Post.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”
Written like that, it seems like a flat accusation of collusion by a high-ranking politician, who generally defends Trump in public. Sounds like a huge story of at least hypocrisy, if nothing else.
The problem is that the Post also thankfully released the actual transcript. And in the transcript, that’s not how it appears at all. This is exactly what the transcript has, including relevant comments before and after (all ellipses and other notes are from the original):
McCarthy: [unintelligible]…I’ll GUARANTEE you that’s what it is.
[Unintelligible]
McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.
McCarthy: laughs
[Crosstalk]
[House Speaker Paul] Ryan: The Russian’s hacked the DNC…
McHenry: …to get oppo…
Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?
[Unintelligible]
McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.
Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?!
[Laughter]
Ryan: This is how we know we’re a real family here.
So in the immediate context of this purportedly serious accusation, the conversation is interrupted by bouts of laughter five times, once before and four times after. The lawmakers seem to be having a grand time.
Now, in any normal situation, if you read a statement that is both preceded and promptly followed by laughter, you would probably assume the statement was a joke–or perhaps that the assembled audience was simultaneously watching funny cat videos on their phones.
But to The Washington Post, this precise same sequence of events is now being adduced as the latest damning piece of evidence to support a conclusion they’ve long since settled on. Not only is Trump clearly a puppet of Vladimir Putin, but the high-ranking Republican leaders know about it and are defending him anyway. The humanity!
If we assume no deliberate deception on the part of The Washington Post, then this is a textbook example of confirmation bias. They took a piece of information and then interpreted it in a way that conformed to, and indeed strengthened, their preconceived understanding of what is true–that Russia has covertly interfered in US politics and compromised Donald Trump.
To be fair, my immediate reaction was also an example of confirmation bias, just in the opposite direction. I dislike Trump for my own reasons, but I’m still not convinced of the Russia-hacked-the-DNC story, let alone the Trump-is-Putin’s-puppet narrative. I’m open to being persuaded; I just haven’t read anything convincing so far. So when I read an extreme assertion on these matters, skepticism is my default response.  Upon further review, I would argue the context in this particular case favors this less alarmist interpretation.
Of course, The Washington Post could go a long ways toward clearing up the issue if they released the actual audio of the conversation, which is in their possession. Let’s hope that happens.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump Shares ISIS Intel with Russia: Hype vs. Reality

President Trump reportedly shared sensitive intelligence information on ISIS with the Russians during a high-level meeting last week. Since it’s a story involving Trump, Russia, and ISIS–offering a savory mix of scandal, Cold War, and terrorism–it promptly became the biggest story to start the week.
The Story
Citing anonymous US officials, The Washington Post reported earlier this week that President Trump shared “highly classified” intelligence on ISIS with the Russians when he met with them last week. The intelligence was that ISIS has been considering using a laptop bomb on an airplane in a future attack. Given that the US recently instituted a laptop ban on incoming flights from the Middle East, this probably didn’t come as a shock to the Russians (or anyone else).
But while the intelligence itself is not that interesting, the controversy is over the fact that this intelligence was gathered by a US ally using a source in the region. And according to the Post, Trump also disclosed the name of the city the source was located in, which is the kind of thing that doesn’t usually get shared unless it needs to be.
In response, White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster downplayed the reportand indicated that any details that were shared would already be accessible from “open-source reporting”.  We can’t be sure, but this phrasing would appear to suggest the city named in the conversation wasn’t very specific–most likely if a source has high-level contacts with ISIS leaders in Syria, they’re located in its de facto capital of Raqqa. While this would make sense, obviously the White House has an interest in minimizing the story just as the Post’s sources had an interest in promoting it. Both versions should be treated with some skepticism.
In any case, the story has become another major controversy for the Trump Administration. The nice, and unique, thing about this story is that both sides basically agree that the underlying event occurred–namely, sharing intelligence with the Russians; the dispute is largely over whether what transpired is a big deal or not. Here’s my take:
No Laws Were Broken
While some outlets were quick to cite this story as the latest impeachable offense by the Trump Administration, there is a problem with that narrative. It’s virtually certain that no laws were broken–which the original Post piece also concedes.
This may seem strange given that purportedly classified material was disseminated to a third party. But this is the curious nature of the President’s broad declassification powers. From a legal standpoint, the president can more or less decide to declassify anything he chooses, and this happens automatically. In general, if the president talks about classified material openly, it ceases to be classified. As a result, the President can’t really commit a crime by sharing classification in the same way that other officials can.
Reminder: Russia is at War with ISIS Too
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Washington Post story was its extensive speculation on how Russia might use the intelligence it received. Here are some relevant excerpts:
But officials expressed concern about Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences. Exposure of an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State, they said, could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats…
“Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive, and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also worked closely with members of the Trump national security team…
The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it…
A former intelligence official who handled high-level intelligence on Russia said that given the clues Trump provided, “I don’t think that it would be that hard [for Russian spy services] to figure this out.”
Given that another part of the story explicitly refers to Russia as an “adversary”, it’s not hard to see what’s being implied here. Now that the Russians know some information source in ISIS, they could find it and disrupt it–to help ISIS! The Washington Post is clever enough to not to state this last clause outright, but it’s a conclusion they go out of their way to encourage.
The trouble is that this suggestion is more than a bit crazy. In fact, Russia is at war with ISIS. Readers will recall that Russia entered the Syrian War to strengthen the Syrian government, and the strongest forces working against the Syrian government are the Islamist factions concentrated in northwest Syria, which are dominated by the local Al Qaeda affiliate, and ISIS, which is concentrated in eastern Syria.
There is no reason to believe the Syrian government is backing one of the main organizations that threatens its survival. Similarly, it would make no sense for Russia to expend significant resources and political capital by militarily backing the Assad regime and then simultaneously provide assistance to one of its major opponents in Syria. Fighting on multiple, conflicting sides of the same war is America’s policy in Syria, but there is no indication that Russia is pursuing a comparable strategy.
In other words, Russia and the US are both at war with ISIS. It’s one of the few issues these two governments actually agree on publicly at the moment.
Of course, one may still find it problematic that Trump haphazardly shared potentially sensitive intelligence information. But it is extraordinarily improbable that the Russians will use it to help one of their primary enemies.
(Also worth noting, The Washington Post actually does concede that Russia is at war with ISIS at one point in the piece. It just left in all the other quotes that cast Russia’s possible actions in the most adversarial light.)
Will Allies Still Share Intelligence with the US?
The Washington Post suggests that this latest revelation might make other allies reluctant to collaborate or share intelligence with the US in the future. This is a reasonable concern.
The episode does lend some additional credibility to the idea that the US has a loose cannon at the helm. But the magnitude of the potential harm caused by this disclosure seems to be blown out of proportion.
Remember, in this case, the US shared intelligence information about a common enemy; all three countries, the US, its ally (which subsequent reports named as Israel), and Russia are all opposed to ISIS. ISIS may not be all parties’ top priority in Syria, but they are still basically on the same side in this part of the war. This fact limits the potential harm to the ally and thus also reduces the probability of any ally having a major falling out with the US over it.
By contrast if the US president had randomly shared Israeli intelligence on Hezbollah with Iran for some reason, that would be a much bigger issue for allied intelligence sharing. But given the facts we know currently, this particular episode seems unlikely to cause a major shake-up to the status quo.
Conclusion
It’s a pretty low bar, but this latest installment of the Trump-Russia controversy had more substance than normal, and competing narratives on the subject had more points of agreement than we’ve grown accustomed to. That said, The Washington Post’s take on the story seemed to clearly inflate the risks and significance of Trump’s actions beyond what the facts warranted.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How Paid Parental Leave Accidentally Promotes Inequality

In honor of Mother’s Day, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg called for a new public policy to limit economic opportunities and choices for women.
Naturally, she did not phrase it quite like that. But among other policy asks in her pronouncement, Sandberg called for a mandatory paid family leave policy. The primary goal of such a policy is to help women. Unfortunately, the economic implications of the policy, if enacted, will be as I described above–reducing opportunities and choices for women.*
This unpleasant outcome is likely to be a surprise to many. In the US, there is overwhelming popular support for implementing some type of paid family leave policy. According to a recent Pew Research survey, fully 82% of Americans believe mothers should receive paid leave after having a child, while 69% believe fathers should get such leave.
No doubt, the supporters of such policies, like Sandberg, have the best of intentions. They probably have never been confronted with the fact that those policies might harm the people they want to lift up.
This stark disconnect between goals and outcomes makes paid family leave an ideal policy for exploring and understanding the unintended consequences of economic intervention. Let’s go through it.
The Basics
As the name implies, a mandatory paid family leave policy works by requiring employers give their employees a certain minimum amount time off upon having a child. The policy will stipulate what rate of pay will be given during leave and the maximum number of weeks that can be taken. Employers must allow employees to resume their jobs at the end of the leave period.
The source of payments during the leave period will vary depending on the policy. In some countries that have these policies, the employers are forced to foot the cost directly–making it similar to how vacation pay is handled. In other places, employees are forced to pay into a fund run by the government and then benefits for everyone are paid out of that pool. This model is similar to how Social Security works.
A final source of variation in the policies is who is eligible for benefits and when. In some policy variants, only women are eligible for parental leave or may be eligible for a longer duration than men. Additionally, in other policies, paid leave would apply in other circumstances besides having a child–perhaps military deployment of a spouse or taking care of a sick relative.
These different leave justifications will have economic consequences of their own. However, to keep things simple, we’ll focus on parental leave policies for this analysis.
Like Products, Jobs Have Trade-offs
For economic purposes, it’s helpful to analyze a job in much the same way we look at a major consumer product. Let’s take a phone as an example.
When buying a phone, there are several factors to consider–price, speed, screen quality, camera quality, OS, battery life, appearance, weight, and so on. On many of these criteria, almost everyone will agree what is better. All else equal, people will prefer a faster phone, a better camera, and a longer battery life. The problem is that all these features have trade-offs. If you want a faster phone, you’ll probably need to pay more. If you want a longer battery life, then you might also have a heavier phone to accommodate the bigger battery.
While that may have seemed like a large tangent, similar observations can be made about jobs. Here, there are probably even more factors to consider: salary, location, growth prospects, interest in field, vacation time, average hours per week, health benefits, and parental leave benefits (if any), among others. Generally speaking, most people prefer a job that pays more, offers more vacation time, and requires less time at work (perhaps because it’s part time or just has fewer late nights). But again, there are trade-offs.
As a personal example, my previous job provided 5 weeks of paid vacation and a multi-month sabbatical option. The downside was that the salary was lower and we were expected to work 60+ hour weeks on a somewhat regular basis. For people that really like to travel, that mixture of compensation and obligations works out perfectly. Others prefer the higher salary and more consistent year-round workload that is offered by competing employers in my field, even if that generally means less vacation.
The reason these types of trade-offs exist in employment is because they represent a cost to the employer. When an employer hires someone for their services, they’re paying much more than just a salary–they also have to consider payroll taxes, health benefits, vacation, 401k benefits, and so on. Hypothetically, suppose Employee A wants a $20,000 health insurance plan with $80,000 in salary and other compensation, and Employee B wants a $30,000 health plan and was willing to accept a $70,000 salary. If the tax implications of both arrangements were the same, the employer should be indifferent between these setups.**
The Cost of Parental Leave
Parental leave also has a cost for employers. The cost of this type of benefit will depend on the length of the leave offered and how easy it is to find someone else to cover the job during an absence. Employers might have to pay fellow employees overtime to cover the extra work or even hire a contractor. The more unique and essential the job is, the more expensive it will be to grant a long leave. Then, once the total raw cost of the leave is determined, the employer has to estimate the probability that a prospective employee is actually going to take advantage of this benefit in the near future.
This probability consideration is what leads to the unintended consequences. By default, most employers probably are not going to ask awkward family planning questions in a job interview. Instead, they are more likely to estimate the probability, consciously or not, based on demographics.
Thus, all else equal, a 20-something female who recently graduated college would be viewed as much more likely have a child in the near future than a 45-year-old male. In turn, that means the expected cost (probability x raw cost) of the leave benefit for the 20-something female is higher than the expected cost for the male. Since employers are generally willing to pay a certain all-in cost, they might respond to this circumstance by choosing the male employee (because he’s cheaper) or by hiring the female at a lower salary (to compensate for the higher leave cost). Either outcome clearly leaves the female candidate at a disadvantage, through no fault of her own.
This outcome is not ideal, but it is the way that trade-offs work in compensation. A faster phone means a higher price. A longer or more likely leave benefit means a more expensive employee.
This then leads to a perverse outcome. In general, the same people that advocate most for mandatory parental leave are also the ones that are concerned about the gender pay gap–the idea that men make more than women in work place. Ironically, mandatory parental leave policies would have the effect of exacerbating any gap that currently exists.
Not Just a Theory
Above we traced through the economic implications of paid parental leave on the employer’s decision-making process. The effects we predicted are those that standard economic theory would suggest. They are logical but also a bit abstract.
Fortunately, in this case, we don’t need to rest our case on theory alone. Since the United States is (thankfully) late to the game on implementing mandatory parental leave policies, we have the benefit of observing their effects in other countries. The results are broadly in line with what the theory would predict.
For example, in some countries, the mandatory parental leave policies have been structured to offer longer leave times for women. Based on our analysis above, we know this would also increase the effective leave cost of women versus men, putting women at an even greater disadvantage relative to men when competing for work. Thus, the following observation from The Washington Post should come as no surprise:
Instead, decades of experience shows that long leave for women only, understandably, has made private-sector employers reluctant to hire, retain and promote them. That’s why in Sweden — which from 1974 to 1995 offered only women generous maternity leave — most women wound up working part time in the public sector and are still juggling the traditional role of primary caregiver at home.
This disparate outcome can be reduced somewhat if the leave policy offers the same time to men and women. However, since women are still more likely to actually take leave, the expected leave cost for women under most arrangements will still be higher.***
The New York Times found a similar outcome when reviewing the impact of US’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed back in 1993. The FMLA mandates employers give 12 weeks of unpaid leave to men or women in response to certain life events, such as having a child. After the law was implemented, women were 5 percent more likely to remain employed (as the law requires employers to retain workers after leave), but were 8 percent less likely to get promotions. Again, women get stuck in lower-paying work than they would be otherwise.
Unfortunately, this is how economic intervention often works out in practice. Policies designed to combat inequality end up promoting it.
A Better Solution: Choice
Now, if you are a woman who is in the workforce and also planning to have kids, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that you’d be willing to sacrifice a higher salary to have a generous paid leave benefit. It’s possible many men who are planning to have a family would happily make the same trade-off. If everyone in society had those exact same priorities, then implementing a mandatory paid parental leave policy would do little harm.
The trouble is that there are many women (and men) who would not opt to make this trade-off. Such people may just be heavily focused on their careers or may not be planning to have kids at all. If they are forced to be eligible for paid leave by the passage of a new statute, then they will be made worse off as a result. Women who have no interest in taking a paid leave of absence may get treated like a flight risk anyway and find it more difficult to advance their careers. And even if this doesn’t occur, they’ll still be forced to directly pay for a benefit they have no interest in taking in the form of a lower salary.
This is the consequence of implementing a one-size-fits-all solution when there really is more than one size. Some people, maybe even a majority, will get a solution that fits them–but everyone else suffers.
A better solution is one where no employee is forced to make a trade-off they didn’t agree to, and employers are free to design leave options as they see fit. This outcome is ideal because it would allow each individual choose the mix of benefits they most prefer, and young women wouldn’t automatically be adjudged a flight risk from the minute they cross the threshold.
A critic might charge that employees seeking generous paid leave packages simply won’t be able to find it in the US, absent a law requiring it. However, economics suggests otherwise. At least some employers–particularly those that have many employees performing the same types of job and can thus easily minimize the cost of leave–will have a strong incentive to voluntarily offer generous leave policies and flexible schedules to cater to current or future working mothers and fathers. By offering generous leave, such firms might be able to economize on overall compensation cost and gain a competitive advantage. Indeed, this isn’t just theoretical speculation–several big name employers have taken this path.
This ideal solution where employee and employer choice is maximized is not that far off from the model that prevails in the US today. The unpaid FMLA reduces this freedom, and a few states have adopted their own paid family leave policies that reduce it further for their residents. But aside from that, the US is lagging far behind most of the developed world. And on this issue, that’s a decidedly good thing.
*To be fair, mandatory paid leave wasn’t the only harmful policy Sandberg called for in her post. She also advocated raising the minimum wage (which disproportionately harms the poorest workers) and vaguely asked for affordable child care, without offering specifics on that front.
**In reality, the tax implications favor employers offering more compensation in the form of health coverage rather than salary.
***I say “most arrangements” here because the NYT piece also discusses an interesting policy modification called the “daddy quota” in Norway that tries to directly incentivize men to take time off and correct for unequal utilization. Apparently policy has changed utilization, and has worked in that sense. To whatever extent that’s true, we would expect Norway’s paid family regime to produce less inequality among men and women. However, the policy would still harm Norwegians who would prefer a higher salary or don’t plan to have children.