Steve Chapman – Reason.com Free Minds and Free Markets 2019-04-26T05:09:58Z https://reason.com/feed/atom/ WordPress Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Why Are We Still in Afghanistan?]]> http://reason.com/2018/11/29/why-are-we-still-in-afghanistan/ 2018-11-29T05:01:00Z 2018-11-29T05:01:00Z The old peacenik slogan was, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" Today, the question is, "What if they gave a war and nobody noticed?" The American mission in Afghanistan has borrowed a page from Harry Potter, draping itself in a cloak of invisibility.

Our war has lasted 17 years and cost upward of $1 trillion, including $45 billion this year. It has killed more than 2,300 Americans and wounded more than 20,000. Yet we recently completed an election campaign in which the conflict was rarely mentioned, much less debated. From a political point of view, this war is about as important as storms on Saturn.

But the spilling of American blood doesn't stop. On Tuesday, three U.S. service members were killed by a roadside bomb. Last week, an Army Ranger was fatally shot in a firefight. And for what?

When we invaded in 2001 to strike back at the Taliban, which had given safe haven to al-Qaida as it plotted the 9/11 attacks, victory seemed attainable. But the mission to eliminate a specific threat to the U.S. homeland soon gave way to a more ambitious project to make Afghanistan a stable, peaceful, and democratic nation. Before long, we were stuck in the Forever War.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama each failed to find the formula for success, and each decided to leave a steaming pile of hard choices to his successor. They stayed in Afghanistan not because they knew how to win the war but because they didn't. They elected to keep feeding American troops into the meat grinder rather than admit failure.

The result has been an endless loop of futility. The latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that the Afghan government has control of no more than 55 percent of the country's districts—down 21 percent from the peak. Nearly 12 percent of the jurisdictions are in the grip of the Taliban, and 32 percent are up for grabs.

The Afghan security forces now bear the brunt of the fighting, with an average of 25 deaths per day. Thanks to steady attrition, their ranks are now the smallest they've been since 2012. Civilian casualties, however, are up nearly 40 percent this year compared with 2017.

We have tried ramping up to overwhelm the insurgents. Obama started in office intending to bring the war to an end, telling his aides, "I don't want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years." He increased our troop strength from about 30,000 to more than 100,000, with the goal of turning the tide of the war enough for us to go home.

It made a modest difference. The Kabul government gained ground, and the Taliban lost it. But a U.S. commitment on that scale was not sustainable. And the long-sought improvements in Afghan governance and military prowess failed to materialize. As soon as Obama drew down forces, things went south once again.

Rather than pull out entirely, he agreed to keep some 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Donald Trump, reluctant to look weak, nearly doubled that number. "The American people are weary of war without victory," he declared.

Wrong. The war causes no visible fatigue in the public because it requires no discernible contribution from the public. In any event, victory has eluded him, too.

For a long time, our options have fallen into two categories: bad and worse. The bad is withdrawing and letting the Afghans settle the war themselves, which could easily lead to a collapse of the government and a Taliban return to power. The worse is staying indefinitely, sacrificing American lives to preserve a stalemate.

But the enemy is sure to outlast us. The outlook recalls the comments of the prime minister of North Vietnam to a New York Times reporter early in the Vietnam War. "And how long do you Americans want to fight, Mr. Salisbury?" he asked. "One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We shall be glad to accommodate you."

The Taliban have shown comparable endurance. Their saying is, "The Americans have all the watches, and we have all the time."

Three American service members gave their lives Tuesday in support of an effort whose only remaining purpose is postponing the inevitable. They won't be the last to die for this mistake.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Divided Government Means More Fiscal Discipline]]> http://reason.com/2018/11/12/divided-government-means-more-fiscal-dis/ 2018-11-12T05:01:00Z 2018-11-12T05:01:00Z Are you ready for some stalemate? Over the next two years, Washington deliberations will resemble one of those 1960s-era football games in which moving the ball was hard and touchdowns were rare. This will not be the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. It will be two immovable objects.

The old maxim says the best government is the least government. Whether that's true or not, I no longer harbor innocent dreams of best government. I will settle for least bad government, and that generally means divided government.

In the next two years, Congress is not likely to do much right, but it's also not likely to do much wrong. It will probably do next to nothing, which—considering the occupant of the Oval Office—is preferable to the alternative.

Republicans no longer enjoy a monopoly on power. On Election Day, they kept control of the Senate but lost the House—inviting Democrats to obstruct, delay, and frustrate Donald Trump's legislative priorities, assuming he has any.

Gridlock will grow more pronounced. But what's the downside? It's not as though much got done when the GOP was in complete charge.

Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act as they had long promised. They did nothing on immigration. Trump's border wall still exists only in the giddy dreams of his more naive rallygoers.

The president proclaimed a couple of "infrastructure weeks," which fell so flat that they became a synonym for irrelevancy. His renegotiated NAFTA has not been approved by Congress and may never be.

About his only real legislative accomplishment was the package of tax cuts enacted last year. It won passage because it united Republicans in a familiar and beloved Washington pastime: abandoning fiscal discipline and piling up debt for future generations to carry.

The Republicans' dominance allowed them to pass the tax bill entirely on their own. No Democrat in either house voted for it.

From a fiscal standpoint, it amounted to a raucous party that will produce a brutal hangover. Thanks in part to this bacchanal, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that federal debt will grow by $13 trillion by 2028.

The good news about our newly divided government is that this sort of reckless extravagance will now be harder to engineer. Democrats are not about to go along with any tax cuts that Republicans would want. So a measure of fiscal responsibility could make a comeback.

That's the historical pattern when power is split between the two parties. It was during a period of divided government in the 1990s that our elected officials took the steps needed to produce actual surpluses in the federal budget. For a few years there, believe it or not, the government spent less money than it took in.

The late William Niskanen, who headed Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, detected a pattern. In the years since World War II, he noted in 2006, the only periods of fiscal restraint were "the last six years of the Eisenhower administration and the last six years of the Clinton administration, both intervals in which the opposition controlled Congress." Spending grew three times faster under unified government, he found, than under divided government.

This formula held under Barack Obama. "Virtually all net spending increases during the Obama administration were enacted during 2009-10, when Democrats controlled Congress," writes Brian Riedl, a budget analyst for the conservative Manhattan Institute. After the GOP took over the House in 2011 (and the Senate in 2015), it curbed his plans.

In Obama's final six years, nearly $900 billion in spending cuts were signed into law. "The fiscal restraint from 2011 through 2016 resulted from gridlock," Riedl concludes—and the gridlock came from you-know-what. But Republicans are better at forcing budget restraint on Democratic presidents than on Republican ones.

Over the decade ahead of us, the deficit will keep growing regardless, thanks to past tax cuts, rising interest payments, increases in defense spending, and the growing costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Attacking those causes, granted, will be even harder with the split in Congress. But let's not kid ourselves. Congress has ignored them over the past two years, and odds are it would have kept doing so even with a Republican House.

Our leaders have shown little inclination to take the steps needed to make the fiscal situation (or much else) any better. Now, at least, it won't be so easy for them to make it worse.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Growing Consensus for Legalizing Marijuana]]> http://reason.com/2018/11/09/the-growing-consensus-for-legalizing-mar/ 2018-11-09T05:01:00Z 2018-11-09T05:01:00Z The United States remains starkly divided between red and blue, with Republicans and Democrats each registering some gains and some setbacks in the elections. But on one important issue, a national consensus is emerging that transcends party and ideology. America is becoming Weed Nation.

On Tuesday, Michigan became the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to decide to legalize marijuana for purely recreational use. A quarter of Americans will live in states that let them get stoned without fear of the constable.

The states include not only reliably crunchy Oregon and Massachusetts but two that went for Donald Trump in 2016—Alaska and Michigan. They range from the East Coast to the West and from the first in population, California, to the 49th, Vermont. The others are Colorado, Maine, Nevada, and Washington.

Then there are the states that allow marijuana to be used for medical needs. On Tuesday, Missouri and Utah—Utah!—voted to join the club. That brings the total number of states that allow pot to be legally consumed in some circumstances to 32, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, plus D.C.

Pro-pot candidates also did well Tuesday. Illinois elected a governor, J.B. Pritzker, who favors allowing recreational cannabis. So did Connecticut (Ned Lamont), Maine (Janet Mills), Minnesota (Tim Walz), and New Mexico (Michelle Lujan Grisham). The winner in Wisconsin, Tony Evers, has said he is "not opposed" to it and would like a statewide referendum to settle the issue.

Cannabis has already run away with the contest for public favor. In 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, only 31 percent of Americans supported legalizing recreational pot. Today, 62 percent do.

But even in states where cannabis is legal, it isn't. Federal law still bans weed, with penalties that include prison time even for mere users. Sick people smoking it to relieve chronic pain, muscular dystrophy, or epilepsy, in faithful compliance with their state laws, are not exempt from prosecution.

Under Barack Obama, the Justice Department adopted a hands-off policy toward states with permissive policies. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued directives instructing U.S. attorneys to defer to state laws on medical and recreational cannabis. The administration also tried to provide banks some assurance that they could handle the accounts of legitimate marijuana suppliers without being prosecuted.

But as soon as he was installed as attorney general, die-hard prohibitionist Jeff Sessions reversed course. He ordered prosecutors to fully enforce federal laws reflecting "Congress's determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime."

Does Congress really still believe that? This ought to be an issue on which the two parties can come together—not on whether marijuana should be legal but on whether states should be allowed to make their own choices. Last year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) joined with Democratic colleagues Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to propose ending the federal prohibition on medical cannabis.

The conservative Tenth Amendment Center regards the federal law as an unconstitutional usurpation of state sovereignty. It was Georgetown professor Randy Barnett, a darling of the conservative Federalist Society, who in 2004 argued before the Supreme Court that the federal government had no right to stop individuals from growing pot for personal use.

He lost the case, but the Court's most conservative justice agreed with him. "Our federalist system, properly understood, allows California and a growing number of other States to decide for themselves how to safeguard the health and welfare of their citizens," Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissent. "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything."

Neither party is consistent on matters of federalism. But this is the rare occasion when Republicans could enlist Democrats in curbing Washington's meddling in matters that can be handled perfectly well at the state level—deploying a concept that liberals might find attractive under President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Republicans might gain politically from eliminating the federal role. Taking a more moderate position on a matter that millions of people regard as no business of politicians could soften their image among independent voters. Passing an important measure with bipartisan support would demonstrate that the 2018 election results didn't prevent our lawmakers from getting anything useful done.

I can just imagine it happening. And no, I'm not high.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[World Series Games Don't Have to Take So Long]]> http://reason.com/2018/10/29/world-series-games-dont-have-to-take-so/ 2018-10-29T04:01:00Z 2018-10-29T04:01:00Z Once upon a time, the postseason provided fans the opportunity to see baseball at its best. Today, it gives us the chance to watch mound visits and pitching changes at their most.

In Game 1 of the World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox deployed 12 pitchers. By comparison, when the Dodgers and the New York Yankees met in 1963, they needed only 11 pitchers to get through the entire series.

Over the four-game sweep, the LA starters covered 35 1/3 innings. A single reliever was needed, to get a grand total of two outs.

Watching managers take the ball from one pitcher and hand it to another is about as exciting as watching someone buy snacks from a vending machine. Baseball has always been a game in which most of the actual playing time features a lot of people standing around waiting for something to happen. Now each game features a lot of people standing around waiting for the game to resume so they can stand around waiting for something to happen.

It's as though Major League Baseball, responding to the perception of many people that the game was slow and tedious, decided to address that complaint by making it even…slower…and…more…tedious.

This is not just a postseason phenomenon. Starting pitchers, not so long ago, used to manage the heroic feat of lasting nine innings on a regular basis. In 1993, Chuck Finley led the majors with 13 complete games. In 2018, eight different guys tied for the lead, with two. Next year, I predict, all pitchers will be tied for the lead, with zero.

During the National League Championship Series, the Milwaukee Brewers took this trend to its logical endpoint by sending out a starter for the express purpose of facing exactly one batter—after which he was excused for the evening to gleefully calculate his per-batter earnings.

Not only does the plethora of pitching changes foster boredom; it stretches games out to epic lengths. Game 1 took three hours and 52 minutes. That's six minutes longer than the film Gone With the Wind—which, when it came out, was the longest movie ever made. Game 1 took just three minutes less than it took to play the last two games of the 1963 series.

Maybe there are some fans who get a thrill every time a manager makes the long hike to send his pitcher to the showers. For everyone else, I have a suggestion that would speed things up: Stop letting relievers throw warmup pitches when they enter the game.

This ritual has been around forever, but it wastes a lot of time. MLB grants two minutes and 55 seconds for a new pitcher to reach the mound and prepare his essential appendage. Every reliever who enters in the middle of an inning robs fans of three minutes of our allotted life spans.

And why does a professional ballplayer need this process? When a backup quarterback trots out on the field, he doesn't get to make a few practice throws before taking a snap. When a pinch hitter steps to the plate, he doesn't insist on hitting some soft tosses to hone his stroke. Getting ready is what the bullpen is for, after all.

Abolishing warmup pitches would save a couple of minutes each time a reliever is called, and in the course of what has become a normal game, the minutes would add up. It would also eliminate an empty interlude that holds the attention of nobody in the stands and subjects TV audiences to yet more commercials.

Purists will say that relievers, deprived of their mound tosses, would be less effective. This is probably true. But it's a feature, not a bug.

If relievers were more prone to missing the strike zone or serving up meatballs, managers would be less inclined to use them. Or they would insert subs more often at the start of an inning, when they are guaranteed warmup time. Either way, the game would move faster, and fewer fans would drag themselves off to bed long before the final out.

If you like baseball as it is now, with frequent delays and interruptions and games that last for days, maybe you'd be even happier dispensing with the players. Then you could direct your full attention to an even more exciting pastime: watching the outfield grass grow.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[With the Saudis, Trump Shows Timidity]]> http://reason.com/2018/10/15/with-the-saudis-trump-shows-timidity/ 2018-10-15T04:01:00Z 2018-10-15T04:01:00Z If a foreign journalist living in America and writing about the Iranian government's noxious policies were murdered by agents of Tehran, the president of the United States would take it as evidence of the need for tough action. Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, however, was a Saudi writing about the Saudi government, which is a U.S. ally.

After Khashoggi disappeared while visiting Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul, Donald Trump was a portrait in timidity. "We want to find out what happened," he bleated more than a week later. "He went in, and it doesn't look like he came out." What happened is pretty clear. Since Khashoggi entered the building October 2, he has not been seen or heard from.

The evidence is that his disappearance was no random event. "The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan," reported The Washington Post. The Turks have told U.S. officials they have audio and video recordings of Khashoggi being tortured and killed inside the consulate.

Trump responded with the limp evasions he reserves for tyrants who have seduced him. "We don't like it, and we don't like it even a little bit," he ventured. If it turns out that the Riyadh regime murdered Khashoggi, he said, "it would be a very sad thing." But he also proclaimed that our relationship with the Saudi government is "excellent."

No doubt. Trump is not about to let a trifle like the premeditated murder of a journalist who had applied for permanent residence in the United States get in the way of his own priorities. The president intimated that those in favor of cutting off weapons sales to Saudi Arabia—a group that includes members of Congress from both parties—fail to grasp the value of those shipments.

"We have a country that's doing probably better economically than it's ever done before," he asserted with his usual inattention to factual accuracy. "Part of that is what we're doing with our defense systems and everybody's wanting them, and frankly, I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country."

Leave aside for the moment Trump's heartfelt conviction that we should indulge assassins as long as they are loyal customers. He also managed to showcase his bottomless store of ignorance and deceit.

The supposed arms deal he reached with the Saudis last year amounted to $110 billion. But as Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel points out, the announced agreement "was fake news then and it's still fake news today. The Saudis have not concluded a single major arms deal with Washington on Trump's watch." The transaction was aspirational, not actual.

Even if the vapor of Trump's claims were to solidify, his deal would stretch over 10 years, making it worth an average of $11 billion annually. That is a huge amount for a military contractor's bottom line but a tiny amount for a $20 trillion economy such as ours.

It's less, in fact, than the amount Trump plans to pay out to American farmers who have suffered from his trade war with China. It's far less than the cost of his threatened tariffs to our economy —a "tough pill" he has been eager to force down our throats.

We might also want to count a notable cost that is easy to ignore because it falls on innocent people far away. A U.N. report in August concluded that the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians, citing airstrikes that "have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities." Such attacks, the panel found, "may amount to war crimes."

Much of the weaponry used by the Saudis comes from the United States. Trump could blame Barack Obama for many of those shipments. Instead, Trump lifted one of the few curbs imposed on the Saudis, letting them buy "smart bomb" components that Obama had blocked.

What have we learned about Trump from his handling of the apparent hit job on Khashoggi? That he is amoral, mendacious, weak, and deaf to matters of humanity. Those are qualities we have seen in him many times before. But sometimes, he exhibits them in a way that retains the power to shock.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[On NAFTA, Trump Averts the Danger He Created]]> https://reason.com/2018/10/04/on-nafta-trump-averts-the-danger-he-crea/ 2018-10-04T04:01:00Z 2018-10-04T04:01:00Z It's an old theme of movies, TV dramas, and even cartoons: A nasty villain ties an innocent damsel to a railroad track, and her terror mounts as a train hurtles toward her—until at the last moment, a hero comes to the rescue. It's also a regular theme of the current administration. The twist is that the villain and the hero are the same person: Donald Trump.

The revised NAFTA, christened the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, is the product of his peculiar approach to disputes. First he heaps scorn on the status quo. Then he emits a torrent of demands and threats, some of which could be disastrous, generating anxiety and uncertainty. Finally, he extracts some modest changes, for better or worse, and invites the praise of a grateful nation. (In the case of North Korea, he then proceeds to fall in love with his negotiating partner, but that may be a one-time fancy.)

As a candidate, Trump reserved special disgust for NAFTA, which he called "the worst trade deal maybe ever." He vowed that he would withdraw if Mexico and Canada wouldn't accept major changes. As president, he repeated his threats, raising fears among automakers and other companies that their carefully constructed transnational supply chains would be tied in knots.

But last month, the administration reached an agreement with the Mexican government, allowing Trump to crow about his deal-making prowess. "A lot of people thought we'd never get here," he said. He also indicated that if the Canadians didn't want to accept the same terms, they were welcome to climb onto an Arctic iceberg and float away. The Oct. 1 deadline the U.S. imposed on Canada raised the prospect that the whole package could collapse, to the detriment of the entire North American economy.

Letting Trump conduct negotiations with foreign governments is like leaving teenagers unsupervised at home for a weekend. You don't expect to find the place in better condition when you return; you just hope it hasn't burned down. It came as a relief that Trump averted the disaster he had threatened to unleash.

The most important fact about the new version of NAFTA is that it would preserve more and destroy less than Trump led his followers to believe. But making a few changes and giving it a new name lets him strike a heroic pose.

Congress still has to decide whether to approve the agreement, but in general, it would preserve the North American free trade zone, with zero tariffs on the vast majority of goods crossing national borders. Companies would still be allowed to invest, operate, and shift production according to economic logic rather than government-created barriers. Special visas that allow professionals in dozens of different occupations to move from one country to another would be retained, despite Trump's notorious aversion to foreigners.

There are some actual upgrades, as Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, notes. U.S. companies and individuals holding copyrights, trademarks, and patents would gain safeguards against piracy. Pharmaceutical companies that have to spend fortunes to prove the safety and efficacy of their medicines wouldn't have to worry about generic rivals reaping the rewards. Digital products would be shielded from taxation.

But most of what the administration got would impede commerce, restrict businesses, and harm consumers. By 2023, at least 40 percent of the components in every vehicle would have to be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour. The administration demanded that provision not to lift up Mexican factory workers, who generally make far less, but to force manufacturers to move production out of Mexico.

Republicans generally oppose minimum wage increases—which is what this mandate would amount to—but if the change were to cause layoffs in Mexico, the Trump administration would count it as an achievement. Hufbauer worries that the precedent will mean "Democrats will put minimum wages in every future trade agreement." It would, of course, raise the price of cars.

The deal would also weaken protections for U.S. businesses operating in many sectors of the Mexican economy, making them vulnerable to onerous regulations that diminish or destroy the value of their property. Why would the administration want to expose American firms to greater risk in Mexico? Simple: to discourage them from investing in Mexico.

Still, the outcome could have been much worse. In this case, it's good to see the damsel escape from the tracks before the train runs her over. And let's just forget who put her there.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[A Polarized America? Not Quite]]> http://reason.com/2018/09/24/a-polarized-america-not-quite/ 2018-09-24T04:01:00Z 2018-09-24T04:01:00Z Modern America is sharply polarized, battered by political furies, and divided as never before. Moderation is disappearing, we are told, as Americans increasingly shun people of different views. We are split between hostile groups, each with its own TV networks, fast-food chains and sporting apparel—Fox News vs. MSNBC, Chick-fil-A vs. Chipotle, Under Armour vs. Nike.

Donald Trump exploits this growing political and cultural separation. Extreme, vocal ideologues are gaining ground on both the right and the left. One-third of likely voters, a poll found, think we are on the verge on civil war.

Or maybe not. That's one picture of the nation in 2018, which fits many surface indicators. But it's an image from a fun-house mirror, composed of misleading distortions. The reality is reassuring.

To alleviate stress and anxiety, some people turn to meditation, yoga, Xanax, or wine. For me, there is no better antidote than Morris Fiorina, who does us the favor of explaining why much of what we worry about is unfounded.

Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, is a calm and genial sort who regularly takes the national political temperature and finds it lukewarm. His latest book, Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party-Sorting and Political Stalemate, is a corrective to the fear of national disintegration.

Rabid partisanship rules in Washington debates—you've heard of Brett Kavanaugh?—but not in the electorate as a whole. In the 1950s, 75 percent of Americans were happy to call themselves Democrats or Republicans, but today, only 60 percent identify with either party.

Independents now make up a plurality of the public. Self-described moderates outnumber either liberals or conservatives.

This may not be the impression you would get from watching cable news, where the middle of the road is conspicuously devoid of traffic. But most people don't spend much time watching cable news.

Conservative Sean Hannity gets 3.4 million viewers on an average night, with liberal Rachel Maddow attracting 2.8 million—which happens to be a tiny sliver of the electorate. Nearly 230 million adults watch neither. Though the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC do better, their combined audience amounts to less than 10 percent of the adult population.

Facebook is faulted for encouraging Americans to retreat into echo chambers to have their views reinforced daily. But Fiorina reports that 96 percent of Facebook users don't click on more than one opinion piece every three months. By reading this column, or any other political commentary, you mark yourself as unusual.

What has changed in recent decades is that the two parties have become more ideologically defined. Democrats used to have a conservative wing, and some liberals inhabited the GOP. Today, however, the most conservative Democrats in Congress are more liberal than the least conservative Republicans.

The overlap made it easier for members and presidents to reach across the aisle. But it's gone, and so, for the most part, is bipartisanship.

Most people are not very conservative or very liberal. But "the middle has no home in either party," Fiorina says. That's one reason more Americans call themselves independents.

Another result: "Democrats and Republicans appear to dislike each other more than they did a generation ago." Partisans are less likely to date or marry someone of the other party than they used to be—a natural consequence of less diverse parties.

But the change is not that significant. In 1939, Fiorina notes, "similar political background" was ranked 18th (and last) among desirable traits in a marriage partner. In 2008, it was 17th.

Based on its surveys, the Pew Research Center concludes, "The way that the public thinks about poverty, opportunity, business, unions, religion, civic duty, foreign affairs and many other subjects is, to a large extent, the same today as in 1987."

We think of California as uniformly blue and Texas as wall-to-wall red. But even strongly partisan places are more diverse than they appear. Nearly 4.5 million Californians voted for Donald Trump, and almost 3.9 million Texans voted for Hillary Clinton.

What gives us polarized politics is not the sentiments of the people but the two-party system. It tends to accommodate those at either end of the political spectrum at the expense of those in-between.

The bad news is that our democracy does a poor job of giving the people what they want. The good news is that it's easier to fix a rotten system than a rotten people.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Casualties of Trump's Trade War]]> http://reason.com/2018/09/17/casualties-of-trumps-trade-war/ 2018-09-17T04:01:00Z 2018-09-17T04:01:00Z When White House economic adviser Gary Cohn showed up in the Oval Office earlier this year to give Donald Trump news of an excellent jobs report, the president's keen grasp of economics and policy instantly came into play. "It's all because of my tariffs," he replied, according to Bob Woodward's new book, Fear. Cohn had to inform him that the tariffs were not yet in effect.

Now they are, and the news is not so sunny. The Federal Reserve reported Wednesday that already, "tariffs are reported to be contributing to rising input costs, mainly for manufacturers," and worries about trade disputes have "prompted some businesses to scale back or postpone capital investment."

Eighty percent of the world's recreational vehicles are built in and around Elkhart County, Indiana, which voted for Trump by a 2-1 margin. When times are bad, people don't buy RVs, because they are a luxury, not a necessity. The Great Recession walloped Elkhart, which saw its unemployment rate hit 20 percent. Nine years later, the rate is 2.3 percent. But RV sales are falling and some plants have cut production to four days a week.

Why? Trump has imposed new duties on steel and aluminum, two commodities needed to build motor homes, campers, and the like. Elkhart-based Smoker Craft, which makes pontoon boats, said because of European retaliation the price of a typical new rig could climb from $30,000 to $37,000. Meanwhile, the tariffs imposed by Canada in retaliation have shriveled a market that previously accounted for a quarter of the company's sales.

"This is a really big deal for us," Elkhart county commissioner Mike Yoder, a Republican, told The New York Times. "We export a lot of product and import a lot of product. If this whole trade dispute expands much more, it has serious implications, and we will once again lead the country into a recession, without a doubt."

He has plenty of company in his anxiety, well beyond northern Indiana. A group of more than 80 trade associations representing U.S. farmers, retailers, toy makers, fisheries, tech companies, and others has launched a campaign with the slogan "Tariffs Hurt the Heartland."

New trade barriers do no good for them or their customers. The American Apparel and Footwear Association, which is part of this coalition, says, "we urge the American consumer to buy their warm winter clothing now, as it's shaping up to be a long, dreary, and bitter tariff season ahead." Parents in need of baby strollers and car seats "could see prices increase dramatically," warns the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.

The president's fixation on blocking imports and punishing trade partners, it must be said, is producing some worthy achievements. One is enlightening many people who voted for him in the mistaken belief that he knew what he was doing.

A new NPR/Marist poll found that his support is declining even in small towns, where 46 percent of voters disapprove of his performance, compared with 41 percent who approve. All this is before Trump follows through on his threat to slap fees on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

His trade war has also illuminated the value of free trade in ways that everyone can see. When a single industry or corporation laments the threat of foreign competition, it can point to the jobs it provides. The intended benefit—saving them—is obvious.

Granting it relief may raise prices, but not enough for most people to notice or object. Trump's broad increase in import taxes, by contrast, can't be ignored: It's too large and affects too many American companies. It could have hardly been designed more effectively to inflict palpable harm across a wide swath of the country and the economy.

But the benefits, if any, are exceedingly narrow. The steel industry, which stands to gain from the tariffs, employs only 140,000 people. Set that against more than 2 million farmers, 5 million retail workers, and 1.3 million auto dealer employees—all of whom stand to lose and many of whom realize it.

In the past, protectionism could be portrayed as a negative only for foreign companies. Now it's become clear that imports are a vital element in the functioning of the economy and that the government restricts them at our peril.

If the trade fight continues and expands, a lot of Americans will suffer from the effects, losing jobs and paying higher prices. Memo to the president: It's all because of your tariffs.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump Confronts the Enemy Within]]> http://reason.com/2018/09/10/trump-confronts-the-enemy-within/ 2018-09-10T04:01:00Z 2018-09-10T04:01:00Z Deep in the White House, someone is acting to subvert Donald Trump's policies, thwart his desires, and generally sabotage his presidency. No, not the anonymous "senior official" who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times. The name of the person making a relentless effort to keep the president from achieving his goals is well-known: Donald Trump.

Other presidents have occasionally shot themselves in the foot. Trump's lower limbs are riddled with new bullet holes every day. He campaigned as though he didn't want to win, and he governs—"governs," rather—as though he doesn't want a second term, or maybe even a full first term.

It would be only a mild surprise to learn that he has been a Democratic mole, scheming incessantly to covertly discredit the Republican Party by making it complicit in his ineptitude and sleaze.

For Trump to be a successful president would not be hard at all. He inherited a growing economy that has kept steaming along since he took office. He has thrilled the GOP rank-and-file with Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

He has been able to roll back a host of federal regulations, to the delight of many business people. He has gotten a big package of tax cuts. He has avoided entanglement in a major new war.

Under ordinary circumstances, a Republican president with this record could expect solid public support and a flower-strewn path to re-election. That Trump has had approval ratings near record lows for the first 20 months of his presidency and faces the prospect of huge House losses in November is a testament to his talent for self-immolation.

Running a normal White House, after his volatile campaign, would have been enough to allay many voters' anxieties. Instead, Trump has made it his daily mission to generate strife and chaos. Bob Woodward's latest book, Fear, amply confirms what was already known. Revelations that would be shocking in any other administration are tediously predictable in this one.

Woodward is a formidable reporter with a matchless talent for getting insiders to talk. No one can seriously doubt his account of what White House chief of staff John Kelly said of Trump: "He's an idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails. We're in crazytown." Or Defense Secretary James Mattis' comparison of Trump to "a fifth- or sixth-grader." Or Trump's lawyer John Dowd's calling him a "liar."

Try to imagine senior members of the Obama White House talking about their boss this way. Or aides to George W. Bush. Or Bill Clinton. Every administration has malcontents, backstabbers, and foot-draggers, but not on this scale.

The Times op-ed, by a "senior official in the Trump administration," was additional proof of the unprecedented dysfunction he has created. Trump's "leadership style," the author reported with dismay, "is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective." And: "The root of the problem is the president's amorality."

Such scathing assessments might be expected from the opposition party. But these come from people who work for Trump—former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to deny calling him a moron—as well as from members of his party in Congress.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.)—whose voting record is more conservative than that of Ted Cruz—said the information in the Times op-ed "is what you hear from two-thirds of the senior people there." Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) agreed: "I am not a fan of anonymous op-eds, but I don't think those of us who have worked closely with people in the White House are surprised by the content."

They can only dream of how much Trump could achieve if he weren't always getting in his own way. Most of what is known about the president's malignant motives and brainless blundering comes not from anonymous sources but from Trump's public behavior and pronouncements. He's a self-sacking quarterback.

A conventionally corrupt president might privately criticize his attorney general because the indictment of two House Republican members means "two easy wins" are "now in doubt." To do it publicly, as Trump did, betrays not just sinister motives but monumental stupidity. To do it while under criminal investigation for possible obstruction of justice, though, is symptomatic of an irrepressible political and legal death wish.

Trump has created a host of enemies, outside and inside his administration. But his worst one is the man he sees in the mirror.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[How to Prevent Overdose Deaths—and How Not To]]> http://reason.com/2018/09/03/how-to-prevent-overdose-deathsand-how-no/ 2018-09-03T04:01:00Z 2018-09-03T04:01:00Z In the next 24 hours, we can expect that some 200 Americans will die of drug overdoses. The relentless toll is the equivalent of the 9/11 attacks occurring every 15 days. Drug laws and enforcement have proved spectacularly ineffectual at saving lives.

So the Trump administration has a novel idea: Do more of what hasn't worked. It's reminiscent of the old line: "The floggings will continue until morale improves."

Illicit opioid users often die of overdoses because, in an unregulated black market, they can't be sure of what they are purchasing. As a result, they sometimes unwittingly inject more than their bodies can tolerate. They also die because they use drugs in places where there is no one to help if they stop breathing.

Public health experts have devised a way to address these problems. "Supervised consumption sites" are spaces where people can obtain sterile syringes and inject drugs in the presence of medical personnel who can save them if they overdose. They can also get referrals for treatment.

Several cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco, have moved toward opening such facilities. But the Justice Department is threatening to marshal its powers against them.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took to the opinion page of The New York Times to denounce the approach. He told a radio interviewer that if the city of Philadelphia proceeds with plans for such a facility, the federal government will act to stop it. "Americans struggling with addiction," he wrote, "do not need a taxpayer-sponsored haven to shoot up."

His argument is worth considering because it reflects both administration policy and the prevailing outlook among defenders of the status quo. But it's a model of confusion and deceit, exhibiting a disregard of pertinent evidence.

He says these sites "actually create serious public safety risks" because "users often have no idea what they are actually buying from criminal drug dealers." That's not an argument against such facilities; it's an argument for them.

If you don't know what you're putting into your arm, the chance of an overdose is especially high. These facilities can test drugs for fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is far more powerful than heroin. Having a nurse on hand to monitor your condition can be the difference between dying from the bad drugs and surviving.

To Rosenstein, this option amounts to "facilitating illicit drug use" and signaling that "the government thinks illegal drugs can be used safely." His alternative is to keep illegal drug use as dangerous as possible, in the earnest hope of deterring people from getting high.

But punitive policies have been tried, with disastrous consequences. The number of drug offenders behind bars is 12 times higher today than in 1980, but illegal drug use has risen steadily over the past two decades. The number of fatalities from drug overdoses has doubled since 2008 and quadrupled since 2000.

Rosenstein claims that under this president, "prosecutions of drug traffickers are on the rise, and the surge in drug overdose deaths is slowing." What he omits is that the number of overdose deaths rose by about 8,000 last year.

He faults supervised sites because most patrons don't get treatment. But a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that clients in Sydney, Australia, and Vancouver, British Columbia, were far more likely to enter treatment than drug users who stayed away.

Rosenstein claims that these operations bring "violence and despair, posing a danger to neighbors." Wrong again. The same study detected "no negative effects on the surrounding community."

You can't get people into treatment or off drugs unless you can keep them alive. That's the main function of these facilities. Epidemiologist Alex Kral of RTI International, a North Carolina research institute, told The Washington Post that over 30 years in Europe and 15 years in Canada, none has had a single overdose death.

By furnishing clean needles and encouraging safe practices, the centers have also curbed the transmission of HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases. If Rosenstein is truly concerned about the burden on taxpayers, he should consider the costs of drug-related illnesses and overdoses. A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the Vancouver facility has yielded a net savings of $20 million over a decade.

That's the evidence of how effectively supervised consumption sites work. And if you want evidence of the failure of existing policies to prevent overdose deaths, it just keeps coming—200 times a day.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[How McCain Paved the Way for Trump]]> http://reason.com/2018/08/30/how-mccain-paved-the-way-for-trump/ 2018-08-30T04:01:00Z 2018-08-30T04:01:00Z John McCain held Donald Trump in deserved contempt, and Trump mocked and detested him in return. But in a sense, Trump is one of the best things that ever happened to McCain. He gave the senator from Arizona so many chances to display his admirable qualities that you could forget he had others.

There is no denying McCain's sterling virtues: bravery, service to his country, bipartisan spirit, candor, indomitability, and more. His 2008 campaign yielded two moments that showed him at his best. The first was when he corrected a woman who told him Barack Obama is "an Arab." The second was his gracious concession speech on election night.

But overall, his time as the Republican nominee exposed a different side of McCain that should not be forgotten, even as the nation mourns his passing. Often his campaign was nasty, dishonest, and irresponsible. Worse, it helped turn the Republican Party into a vehicle that could be commandeered by Donald Trump.

The demonization of Obama that plagued his presidency didn't begin on Inauguration Day. It was part of the 2008 GOP campaign, and McCain was more than complicit. He was more than happy to question his opponent's patriotism and disparage his integrity.

When Obama disagreed with his opposition to a bill expanding education benefits for veterans, McCain replied with sanctimonious scorn: "I will not accept from Sen. Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did." McCain had voted to confirm Dick Cheney as secretary of defense even though he got five deferments to avoid Vietnam.

Because Obama favored withdrawal from Iraq, McCain claimed his rival "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." Sen. Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Nebraska Republican, rebuked McCain for stooping to this smear.

Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant, praised McCain's attacks: "Obama is always going to struggle with the cultural disconnect. He scans very much as liberal Ivy League elitist. People automatically put him in a box with people who are not like Middle America's view of patriotism." Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), whom McCain revered for his courage in marching for civil rights, accused him of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division."

After slamming Obama for his inexperience, McCain put the country at risk of Sarah Palin, who lacked not only experience but basic knowledge of issues. Her ignorant demagoguery was practically a blueprint for Trump's campaign—and when Trump came along, McCain's running mate campaigned for him.

But McCain's examples of grievous misjudgment didn't begin or end with the campaign. In 2003, he predicted that "when the people of Iraq are liberated, we will again have written another chapter in the glorious history of the United States of America."

This year, McCain finally acknowledged that the war "can't be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it."

But it was a limited lesson, learned late. He was a tireless advocate of military intervention in foreign conflicts, including Libya and Syria. He favored a pre-emptive strike to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and opposed the Iranian nuclear deal.

McCain was wrong on many issues. He opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military. He opposed George W. Bush's tax cuts partly because they would produce "growing deficits"—and, after they did exactly that, voted to extend them. A champion of humane immigration policy, he changed course in 2008, saying he would vote against his own bill.

Among his favorite crusades was campaign finance reform. But the Supreme Court ruled that major sections of the McCain-Feingold law violated the First Amendment.

Not only that but it didn't clean up our elections. Opponents warned that by barring large individual and corporate contributions to political parties, "it would precipitate a tectonic shift of political power away from the parties and toward outside groups, which were likely to be far more extreme and far less accountable," wrote Robert Kelner and Raymond La Raja in 2014 in The Washington Post. "The critics were correct." It's another way the foe of Trump facilitated the rise of Trump.

McCain, a far wiser statesman and a far better human being than this president, fully earned the praise being bestowed on him. But for the process that brought America to its current disgrace, McCain also earned a share of the blame.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Brett Kavanaugh, Abortion, and 'Settled Law']]> http://reason.com/2018/08/27/brett-kavanaugh-abortion-and-settled-law/ 2018-08-27T04:01:00Z 2018-08-27T04:01:00Z Roe v. Wade will be safe with Justice Kavanaugh.]]> After meeting with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Susan Collins emerged to announce that he regards the Roe v. Wade decision as "settled law." This comes as an apparent relief to the Maine Republican, who favors abortion rights. But those who hope the Court will uphold Roe would be rash to assume it would be safe with Justice Kavanaugh.

"Settled law" sounds solid, but like ice, it's a substance that can quickly turn to vapor. Roe is "settled" in the sense that it has survived for 45 years and the Court has passed up opportunities to ditch it. But being settled doesn't mean its survival is assured, under the Court of 2019 or 2029.

The pertinent question for the nominee is whether Roe is entitled to be treated as not merely a precedent, which the Court should not lightly reverse, but a "super-precedent," which the Court should not reverse, period.

All courts defer to previous decisions, adhering to them unless there is good reason not to—a concept known as stare decisis. In this vein, the justices have repeatedly preserved the core elements of Roe. In 1992, the Court said that overruling Roe would do "profound and unnecessary damage to the court's legitimacy, and to the nation's commitment to the rule of law."

In a 2000 case, Judge J. Michael Luttig of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit invoked that 1992 decision, which allowed some restrictions but affirmed "a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy in its early stages."

Luttig interpreted it "to be a decision of super-stare decisis with respect to a woman's fundamental right to choose whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy"—a position, he noted, that the Supreme Court later "not merely confirmed, but reinforced." The conclusion was especially noteworthy coming from a highly respected conservative who was considered for the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush.

During John Roberts' 2005 confirmation hearings, Harvard law professor Charles Fried, who was solicitor general in the Reagan administration, testified that even though Roe was "wrongly decided," he thought it had become a "super-precedent." It underlay so many other important decisions that upending it would be "an enormous disruption."

Roberts ducked the super-precedent question. Kavanaugh is likely to follow suit. Whether he would vote to discard or hollow out the right to abortion is anyone's guess.

Most judges and scholars agree that some Supreme Court decisions are so fundamental to modern law and life that they are immune from reconsideration—such as Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregated public schools, and the 1871 ruling that paper money is not unconstitutional. Maybe these decisions did not strictly follow the text of the Constitution or the intent of the Framers, but scrapping them would cause too much trouble to be justified.

Not everyone thinks Roe belongs in that company. University of Chicago law professor David Strauss, who defends the right to abortion it upheld, wrote in 2010 that the decision should not be treated as sacrosanct.

"Protracted opposition, even if it does not prevail, counts for something," he said, arguing that Roe "cannot be put on the same level as decisions…that were initially controversial but have now gained near-universal acceptance." Now, though, he tells me, "Appointees of presidents who made a point of attacking Roe have voted to uphold it. That kind of resilience ought to give Roe a much greater claim not to be overruled."

Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett, a prominent originalist, has argued that the only decisions qualifying as super-precedents are those affirming policies that no one would challenge anyway—such as the ban on Jim Crow.

That does not apply to Roe. A test of the honesty of any approach to constitutional interpretation is whether it sometimes yields outcomes that you don't like. The late Antonin Scalia said, "If it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag." But as a justice, he voted to strike down a law against flag desecration.

Roe, in my opinion, was a sensible decision enshrining a crucial right. But for its defenders to say it is beyond re-examination by the Court would be putting preference over principle.

Liberals might like to grant Roe protected status. They would bridle, though, at putting equally durable rulings that they disdain—say the 1976 decision striking down limits on campaign spending—in the same category.

If Kavanaugh joins the Court, he should feel free to ask whether the constitutional right to abortion truly deserves to be preserved. His answer should be: Yes.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Unindicted Co-Conspirator in the Oval Office]]> https://reason.com/2018/08/23/the-unindicted-co-conspirator-in-the-ova/ 2018-08-23T04:01:00Z 2018-08-23T04:01:00Z "Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit."—Matthew 7:17

There is one apparent reason the president of the United States was not indicted Tuesday in the same case that yielded a guilty plea from his longtime personal lawyer. It's not because prosecutors think he is innocent. It's because he is president.

The U.S. Justice Department has long taken the position that a sitting president is exempt from indictment. Only after he leaves office are prosecutors free to pursue criminal charges against him. Unless that policy changes, Donald Trump will serve the remainder of his time in office under the specter of prison.

Let that sink in a moment. Prosecutors may postpone his indictment. Congress may refuse to impeach him or convict him. But Americans will be living under the administration of someone who has been implicated in a crime by a close associate—and who they may eventually learn is guilty of one or more felonies. The nation is being governed by an unindicted co-conspirator.

Trump's defenders deprecate the importance of the campaign finance violations that Michael Cohen admitted. They make much of the absence of any connection to Russia. They take vindication from a jury's failure to convict Paul Manafort on 10 of the 18 charges that he faced.

It's tempting to call such defenders slavish. But slaves were often unenthusiastic and slow in performing their assigned tasks. Trump's defenders need no whips to motivate them.

They are better described as cultlike in their fervent willingness to believe whatever they have to believe to remain faithful. They would rather eat the foul fruit than recognize the nature of the tree.

If we know nothing else about Trump, we know that he finds the company of criminals as warm and inviting as a Jacuzzi. No president in history has shown such a fondness for employing people of felonious character. So far, five of his associates have been convicted of crimes or pleaded guilty.

It is people of firm probity who make Trump uncomfortable—James Comey, who wouldn't agree to "go easy" on one of those confessed felons (Michael Flynn); Robert Mueller, who has served his country as a decorated Marine, federal prosecutor, and FBI director, all without a hint of scandal; Rod Rosenstein, who has refused to fire Mueller as special counsel; and a host of journalists whose sole sin is to report unflattering facts about Trump.

Let's not forget his deep animus for Barack Obama, who served two terms without any credible allegation of corruption against him or anyone in his circle of aides or associates. The closest thing to a major criminal case in that White House involved CIA Director David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of giving classified documents to his biographer.

It is not impossible that Cohen committed his campaign finance crimes—paying hush money to keep two women from making public their claims of having sex with Trump, to help him win the election—without the knowledge or approval of his boss.

But Trump hasn't earned the benefit of any doubt. At every stage, he has told lies that were later exposed and acknowledged. The president denied that he knew of the payment to Stormy Daniels, only to later admit it. He also had to admit that he personally reimbursed Cohen, who originally insisted that he bore the cost.

Speaking of people willing to make financial sacrifices out of their devotion to Trump, his former campaign manager was convicted on eight felony counts Tuesday. Trump said the convictions "had nothing to do with Russian collusion," but Manafort had extensive ties to a Russian oligarch and Russian businesses—and owed them millions of dollars.

At the time he took the job with Trump, his defense lawyers admitted during the trial, Manafort had no income. Yet Trump was happy to let him run the campaign. Did Trump not know that his unpaid campaign manager was in financial trouble that gave pro-Russian foreign interests leverage over him? Or did he not think to wonder why Manafort was so eager to work for nothing?

Manafort is just one of the noxious products of a corrupt tree. Tuesday was a bad day for the president and the country. But our experience with Trump suggests that the worst is yet to come.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Truth Behind Chicago's Violence]]> http://reason.com/2018/08/13/the-truth-behind-chicagos-violence/ 2018-08-13T04:01:00Z 2018-08-13T04:01:00Z The bloodletting in Chicago last weekend, with 74 people shot, 12 fatally, was enough to horrify even locals, who are relatively inured to chronic slaughter at the hands of gun-wielding felons. "Unbelievable," said state Rep. La Shawn Ford, a black Chicago Democrat who went so far as to call on President Donald Trump for help.

The shock was also evident beyond Chicago. Rudy Giuliani blamed Democrats in general and Mayor Rahm Emanuel in particular. The mayor's legacy, he tweeted, is "more murders in his city than ever before." Everywhere, there was agreement that the city's mayhem is out of control and in urgent need of measures to contain it.

But don't believe the hype. There are not, in fact, more murders in Chicago than ever before. The number of homicides peaked at 920 in 1991. The death toll last year was 674—and that was down 15 percent from 2016. This year, even with the latest frenzy of shootings, the number of homicides is 25 percent lower than it was at this point in 2017.

These are real signs of progress, however tardy and insufficient. If this year's trajectory holds, it would mean some 280 fewer people dying violently this year than just two years ago. Another year on this trend line would put the city about where it was in 2013—when the number of homicides hit the lowest level in 48 years.

Contrary to popular myth, cynically promoted by Trump and other outside critics, Chicago is not an exceptionally dangerous city. In terms of violent crime, it is less afflicted than a number of large cities, including St. Louis, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

Republicans blame unbroken Democratic control of Chicago for its mayhem. But partisan coloration is an unreliable indicator of crime patterns. Of the 10 states with the highest rates of violence, seven voted for Trump. Los Angeles, whose homicide rate is enviably low, has had only Democratic mayors since 2001.

It's easy to blame the mayor for the persistent bloodshed—and former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who is running against Emanuel in the February election, does not pass up the opportunity. McCarthy headed the Chicago Police Department from 2011 to 2015, and he claims credit for the improvement that occurred in that period.

But he was also in charge of Chicago police when an officer shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald—a gross overreaction that police labored to cover up. The spike in murders began just after the release of dashcam video showing the victim walking away from police before being riddled with bullets. The revelation, which contradicted official accounts, sparked public outrage, particularly among African-Americans.

One problem in Chicago is the dismally low number of homicides that police are able to solve—about 1 in 6. But the department's poor reputation among many of the people most at risk discourages the sort of cooperation from citizens that cops need to catch the killers.

The city's record of failing to discipline officers who resort to unjustified lethal force is corrosive. Last year, WBEZ reported that since 2007, the city's Independent Police Review Authority had "investigated police shootings that have killed at least 130 people and injured 285 others"—and "found officers at fault in just two of those cases, both off-duty" incidents.

The Chicago Reporter provided additional evidence. "From 2012 to 2015, the city spent more than $263 million on settlements, judgments and outside legal counsel for police misconduct," it found. If police want more help from the communities they serve, this is not the way to get it.

Despite these failures, the decline in homicides suggests that the city and the department are doing something right. But what that might be is hard to determine with any confidence.

The fight against crime can't be restricted to more or better policing. Chicago's crime problem is concentrated in a small number of poor, blighted, mostly African-American neighborhoods. Those areas owe their plight largely to a sordid history of systemic, deliberate racial discrimination and violence, endemic poverty, and official neglect over decades.

The conditions that breed rampant crime in parts of Chicago came about not by accident but by policy. The recent attention shows that people here and elsewhere care about the violence. Do they care about fixing the causes?

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Trump Administration Is a Sinkhole of Sleaze]]> https://reason.com/2018/08/09/the-trump-administration-is-a-sinkhole-o/ 2018-08-09T04:01:00Z 2018-08-09T04:01:00Z The State Dining Room in the White House is adorned with a quotation from John Adams: "May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof." His wish has often gone unfulfilled.

"Under Grant's two administrations, there flapped through the national capital a whole phantasmagoria of insolent fraud," wrote Edmund Wilson in his book Patriotic Gore. Americans who remember nothing else about Warren G. Harding can name the scandal that engulfed his administration: Teapot Dome. Richard Nixon resigned for crimes that would have gotten him prison time had he not been pardoned.

But champions of these tainted presidents can take heart. Since Jan. 20, 2017, Americans have seen an endless torrent of corruption beyond anything previously imagined. No president has ever had a surer instinct than Donald Trump for finding and empowering scam artists, spongers, and thugs.

As a candidate, he promised, "I'll choose the best people for my administration." Maybe he inadvertently omitted the word "not." Looking for the best people in Trump's circle would be like looking for icebergs in the Everglades.

Three Trump associates—Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and Rick Gates—have pleaded guilty to charges of lying to investigators. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was brought down by his habit of using private jets and military planes for travel. EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned over a raft of shameless ethical offenses.

Trump's first staff secretary, Rob Porter, and his first nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew after revelations that their ex-wives had accused them of violent abuse. But this is a president, keep in mind, whose first wife accused him of rape.

The trial of his former campaign manager has provided more evidence of Trump's sure instinct for compulsive shysters. Paul Manafort was indicted for allegedly laundering millions of dollars in income and evading taxes. Gates, Manafort's former aide and Trump's deputy campaign chairman, testified this week that he helped Manafort commit those crimes.

Manafort stands out for his peculiar shopping proclivities. Among his more ridiculous outlays was more than $1.3 million in men's apparel, including a $15,000 ostrich-skin jacket that most men would not wear if you paid them $15,000. Gates admitted he embezzled from his former boss, which suggests that Manafort was no better at finding honest help than Trump is.

You could hardly surround yourself with so many disreputable figures as the president has unless you opened a halfway house for felons. But his preference for the shady sort is what you'd expect of someone whose business career has been a chronicle of bankruptcy, bullying, and deceit.

After vowing never to settle a lawsuit filed by Trump University students who said they had been scammed, he agreed to pay $25 million to bring it to an end. His lawyer Michael Cohen paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 not to share her story of having sex with Trump. Cohen is under investigation by a federal prosecutor on an array of possible crimes.

Flying under this cluttered radar is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who just settled one of a string of lawsuits by business associates charging that he stole from them. Forbes magazine found that "these allegations—which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine—come to more than $120 million. If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history."

In June, the New York attorney general sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation, accusing it of "sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign," as The New York Times reported.

Among the alleged offenses was using charitable funds to settle lawsuits and buy portraits of Trump. The foundation earlier paid a fine for an illegal campaign contribution.

Marc Owens, who previously was director of the tax-exempt organization division of the IRS, told CNN, "The Trump Foundation may be unique in the variety and scope of its transgressions of state and federal law." He added, "In my opinion, there are no effective defenses that Donald Trump and/or his foundation can deploy to either the attorney general's petition or to federal tax charges."

"Unique in the variety and scope of its transgressions." That would do as the motto of an administration that, even if it manages some tangible achievements, will forever be remembered as a sinkhole of sleaze.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump's Lousy Record on Trade]]> http://reason.com/2018/08/06/trumps-lousy-record-on-trade/ 2018-08-06T04:01:00Z 2018-08-06T04:01:00Z The Trump administration has a new agenda: bringing about a new world of free, robust, and unfettered trade. After his July meeting with the head of the European Union, the president was pleased to announce, "We agreed today, first of all, to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods."

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said that Trump "wants to have no tariffs" because "he's a free trader." Yes, he is. And I'm Reese Witherspoon.

Trump is as far as you can get from a free trader. We know that from a Denali-sized mountain of evidence provided by Trump over his time in politics and business.

He hates NAFTA—"the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere." He has a pathological aversion to trade deficits, which he blames for destroying jobs and hobbling growth. During the campaign, he proclaimed, "It's time to declare our economic independence once again."

Remember what NAFTA stands for? North American Free Trade Agreement. The 1994 accord eliminated virtually all tariffs between the United States, Mexico, and Canada—tariffs that were higher for U.S. goods going into Mexico than for Mexican goods coming here.

It also got rid of an array of other barriers, including import licenses and local content rules. Between 1993 and 2014, U.S. exports of goods and services to Mexico rose fivefold, and those to Canada tripled. NAFTA largely achieved its purpose: turning North America into a giant free trade zone.

Trump thinks it's a rotten deal because some American companies moved production out of the U.S. and some American workers lost their jobs. But that's how healthy markets work.

Trade deficits are part of any free trade regime worthy of the name. Some countries will import more than they export, and some won't. Assuming that the U.S. would run a trade surplus under authentic free trade is like believing that if the NFL rules were fairly enforced, your team would win the Super Bowl every year.

In a free trade environment, outcomes are not predetermined to suit particular companies, workers, or politicians. They are decided by consumers and producers pursuing their own interests. That's why it's called "free."

Trump's ideal of "economic independence" is the exact opposite of what economists recommend. Open commerce makes every nation dependent on other nations, buying and selling for mutual advantage.

As the father of economics, Adam Smith, noted in 1776, it makes no more sense for a nation to produce everything it needs than for a family to produce everything it needs. A nation that achieved "independence" by abstaining from trade with other countries would doom itself to poverty.

There is no evidence that Trump understands any of this. He imagines that only unfair deals and foreign cheating can account for trade deficits and the migration of some jobs abroad.

He made clear his view of trade at a July rally in Granite City, Illinois, asserting, "We lost $817 billion a year over the last number of years in trade. In other words, if we didn't trade, we'd save a hell of a lot of money."

True. And I'd save a lot of money if I stopped eating. The president doesn't grasp that Americans and foreigners engage in international commerce for one simple reason: It leaves them better off.

Trump has shunned the pursuit of freer trade whenever the opportunity has arisen. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have obliterated 98 percent of the tariffs in place among the 12 signatories. Candidate Trump called this vast free trade deal "a rape of our country" that would "increase our trade deficits and send even more jobs overseas."

Trump also spurned the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU, which was still being hammered out when he took office. Negotiators had already agreed to remove 97 percent of the existing tariffs and attack "unnecessarily burdensome requirements and delays at our borders."

Should Trump decide to resume those talks, he's not likely to improve on what was already done—and he doesn't really want to. What he wants is to protect favored U.S. industries while getting other countries to buy more from us.

In his world, the only good trade system is one in which we win and other countries lose. The truth that he has never been able to see is simple: Free trade enriches every country, and blocking it makes losers of us all.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Rename Austin Over Slavery? How About Washington?]]> https://reason.com/2018/08/02/rename-austin-over-slavery-how-about-was/ 2018-08-02T04:01:00Z 2018-08-02T04:01:00Z I grew up in Austin, Texas. At least that's what we called it then. I've often said that after all the growth it has experienced, I barely recognize the city I once called home. If a new proposal goes anywhere, though, I won't be able to call it home or Austin.

The Austin Equity Office, you see, recently published a report on Confederate monuments. It compiled a list of parks, streets, and facilities named for slaveholders, Confederate veterans, and other symbols of the antebellum South, and it provided cost estimates for changing names and removing statues.

One of the people mentioned is Stephen F. Austin, who played a central part in the founding of Texas. Though he owned no slaves and died long before the Civil War, the report notes that he "fought to defend slavery in spite of Mexico's effort to ban it" and feared that freed slaves would be "a nuisance and a menace." Among the things named after him are a street, a high school, a recreation center and…a city of nearly a million people.

The unlikely idea of changing the city's name, which the report raised, has provoked outrage and incredulity. I am no fan of Confederate statues, flags, and nostalgia, but the critics have a point. Carting off a bronze sculpture of Stonewall Jackson is one thing. Renaming a city is another.

Compared with the sins of the people who took part in secession and bore arms against the United States, Stephen F. Austin's were not major. In any case, the connection between him and the city has withered to irrelevance.

When you think of Monument Avenue in Richmond, you think of the Civil War. When you think of Austin, you think of Willie Nelson, the University of Texas, South by Southwest—almost anything but the person it was named for. In much of the Lone Star State, "Austin" is shorthand for "crazy liberals."

If re-christening is obligatory there, sign-makers are going to be working overtime across the country. The nation's capital and dozens of other Washingtons were named for a slaveholder. So were Madison, Wisconsin, and Jefferson City, Missouri. Anything named "Columbus" or "Columbia" would need a replacement, given the fate of Native Americans once the explorer arrived.

And let's not forget the big enchilada: America. Its name came from Amerigo Vespucci, who on one of his voyages to the New World captured a couple of hundred natives to sell as slaves.

This is not to say the campaign against Confederate symbols is mistaken. On the contrary, it's long overdue. The University of Texas has taken down statues of four Confederate leaders. The city of Austin has renamed Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue. Confederate Avenue and Dixie Drive could be next.
The reasoning behind such changes is unassailable. It's an abomination to honor the Confederacy, whose chief purpose was preserving white supremacy and African-American bondage. There is no way to think of Lee or Davis without recalling the vast monstrosity they upheld.

But Austin, like other cities, has an identity entirely separate from its namesake. As the report noted, "Where do we stop?" is a reasonable question. I don't know exactly the right place to stop, but the name of the city is way past it.

This addled suggestion, however, should not be used to discredit the reassessment of problematic tributes. The mostly white, mostly male people who ran cities and states decades ago had the right to decide who deserved a statue or a street name. The more diverse people in charge today have the right to make additions and deletions in accordance with their own values—racial equality being one.

Austin has a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and a Cesar Chavez Street because locals came to see the contributions of people of color. That's not political correctness. It's democracy. You know why they call the Confederacy the Lost Cause? Because it lost.

Changes like this don't "erase history" as some critics charge. On the contrary, they expand our appreciation of history to include oppressed groups that were once rendered invisible. Confederate statues can serve an educational purpose—in museums. A Jeff Davis Avenue, however, makes about as much sense as a Benedict Arnold Drive.

It's important that Americans have begun to rid ourselves of monuments to avoid glorifying evil and folly. It's equally useful to know where to stop.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[On North Korea and Iran, Trump Is Deluding Himself]]> http://reason.com/2018/07/30/on-north-korea-and-iran-trump-is-deludin/ 2018-07-30T04:01:00Z 2018-07-30T04:01:00Z Take a tough Republican president, a Chinese government committed to help us, and a North Korean government faced with demands for denuclearization, and what do you get? It sounds like breaking news. But the scene comes from 2007, when the Bush administration thought it had achieved a historic breakthrough with North Korea. It was mistaken.

So, it appears, is Donald Trump. In June, he emerged from a summit with Kim Jong Un and tweeted that "everybody can now feel much safer" because there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea." He could have been accused of putting the cart before the horse, if there were a cart, or a horse.

So far, the most he has to show for the meeting is the remains of 55 American military personnel killed in the Korean War, turned over Friday—a welcome achievement, but not one that makes us safer. Aside from that, the administration mostly has vague commitments that are not worth the paper they weren't written on.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted Wednesday that the Pyongyang regime is still producing fuel for nuclear warheads. It has begun to dismantle a missile test stand that has already served its purpose, but other facilities remain intact.

U.S. negotiators complain that their North Korean counterparts "have canceled follow-up meetings, demanded more money and failed to maintain basic communications," reported The Washington Post. Trump, after claiming swift success in getting Kim to give up his nukes, now says, "I'm in no real rush."

It was once said of French royals that "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing." Trump and his foreign policy team, by contrast, have learned nothing and forgotten everything. Their ignorance of and disdain for history have left them surprised at the difficulty of coercing our enemies—and the poor options available to us when bluster proves unavailing.

The president assumed that by threatening North Korea with "fire and fury," as he did last year, he could force Kim to surrender his atomic arsenal. So far, it hasn't worked.

That hasn't stopped him from using the same approach with Iran. On Monday, after President Hassan Rouhani warned him not to attack, Trump threatened Iran with "CONSEQUENCES THE LIKE OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."

He doesn't seem to realize that every time he raises the specter of American bombs incinerating Iranians, he pushes the Tehran government to acquire a nuclear deterrent. Entrusting the State Department to Pompeo, who had advocated regime change in Iran, had the same effect.

Pompeo had unmitigated scorn for the nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the U.S. and five other parties, which Trump renounced in May. The secretary has vowed to keep sanctions until Iran meets a long list of stringent conditions.

Those demands go far beyond what Iran was willing to accept in the accord, which was the product of years of give-and-take. The administration's position on Iran, as with North Korea, is that we expect total capitulation. Trump has found the perfect formula for getting nothing while hardening the enemy's resolve.

The obvious lesson of recent history is that nuclear arms are the best guarantee of survival in the face of U.S. hostility. That's why North Korea has invested so much time and money acquiring nuclear warheads and the missiles to carry them. That's why Iran created the infrastructure to produce nukes.

During the Obama administration, Iran was willing to enter into an agreement requiring it to dismantle most of its nuclear centrifuges, surrender 97 percent of its enriched uranium, and accept extensive outside inspections. When Trump pulled out, he sent a message to Tehran that negotiations with the U.S. are a snare and a delusion. The message did not go unheard in Pyongyang.

All this brings to mind the line from country singer Trisha Yearwood: "That's just a lot of water underneath a bridge I burned." By acting as though the North Korean problem has been solved, Trump encourages Kim to continue the regime's old practice of stringing us along. By scrapping the Iran deal, he encourages Tehran to pursue nukes. In each case, he leaves himself with few options to get his way except going to war—which would be disastrous and might not work.

Trump is fond of burning bridges. One of these days, he may realize that he's stranding himself.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Why Trump Supporters Will Regret His Trade War]]> https://reason.com/2018/07/26/why-trump-supporters-will-regret-his-tra/ 2018-07-26T04:01:00Z 2018-07-26T04:01:00Z Donald Trump, who assembled a winning coalition that included manufacturing workers, farmers, ranchers, people who ride Harleys, and capitalists resentful of Barack Obama, is now doing his best to turn them all against him. His insistence on levying tariffs on a wide range of products is perfectly designed to inflict pain on those who voted for him, along with everyone else.

On Tuesday, the administration unveiled a plan to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers who are or will be hurt by the tariffs imposed by our trading partners in retaliation for Trump's. It was an admission that his trade war will be harder and more expensive than he had made it sound.

Soybean growers stand to lose their biggest export market: China. The National Milk Producers Federation says the turmoil has already caused a drop in dairy prices. Supplies of beef, pork, and poultry, reports The Wall Street Journal, are "piling up in U.S. cold-storage warehouses, fueled by a surge in supplies and trade disputes that are eroding demand."

Harley-Davidson said its manufacturing costs would increase by $55 million because of the administration's duties on imported steel and aluminum—which will probably force it to raise prices. It also said it would have to move some production across the Atlantic after the European Union retaliated with tariffs on motorcycles shipped from the United States.

One company that was thrilled when Trump went after imported washing machines was Whirlpool, which figured it would gain sales on the machines it makes here. But its earnings and stock price are down because of the steel and aluminum tariffs.

"We are impacted by the tariffs, as we are an import of record of our suppliers who have to basically pay the tariffs," lamented CEO Marc Bitzer. He seemed shocked to find his business damaged by policies that he expected would only harm other American companies.

Trump's threat to put stiff duties on imported cars should cause jubilation among producers of domestic models, right? Wrong. A group representing manufacturers, dealers, suppliers, and service providers, including foreign and domestic firms, has written the president pointing out that the tariffs on cars and car parts "would be a massive tax on consumers who buy or service their vehicles—whether imported or domestically produced."

Even the United Auto Workers union, a longtime critic of free trade, has refused to endorse the tariffs. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers fears a "domino effect" that will be detrimental to the entire economy.

The carmakers are not alone. The right-of-center Tax Foundation has just released a study concluding that the new and prospective tariffs would slash annual GDP growth by half a percentage point, amounting to $117 billion in lost output, and cost 365,000 American jobs.

The trade war, the Tax Foundation said, could raise consumer prices—or it could cause the dollar to appreciate, which would curtail exports and hurt workers in industries that ship goods abroad. Businesses will suffer regardless, because in an interconnected world, one company's protection is another company's cost increase.

The president believes that hitting other countries with tariffs will force them to open their markets or sell less here. What he fails to recognize is that our trading partners are bound to fight back with tariffs of their own.

Political leaders don't readily capitulate to the demands of a foreign president, particularly one as widely unpopular as Trump. They know that if they cave in this time, he will be back next week with more demands. Appeasement is an unappealing strategy in the trade realm as well as the military realm.

Barring a retreat by Trump, the trade war will continue and may escalate, leaving a lot of collateral damage in its wake. Lately, he has been able to claim credit for brisk economic growth, low unemployment, and low inflation. His trade policies, however, are likely to slow growth, destroy jobs, and boost consumer prices.

Workers, farmers, business people, and others who thought Trump would be their champion now find he is happy to sacrifice them in pursuit of his trade mania. The only people who will clearly gain are economists, as Trump proves everything they say about why free trade is better than protectionism. It will be a useful lesson for all of us, but not a pleasant one.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[How the National Flood Insurance Program Wastes Taxpayer Dollars]]> http://reason.com/2018/07/23/how-the-national-flood-insurance-program/ 2018-07-23T04:01:00Z 2018-07-23T04:01:00Z In 1967, Pete Seeger composed a protest song that said: "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on." It was a poke at President Lyndon Johnson, in an allegory about Vietnam. That war is long past. But Johnson led us into another, more literal Big Muddy that we have yet to escape.

Hurricane season is underway in North America, with the worst storms likely between August and October. Americans who live inland may think they have nothing to worry about, because their homes will not be drowned in salt water. But they are at high risk anyway.

That's because they will have to shoulder a large share of the cost of helping homeowners who live in the path of tropical storms. The National Flood Insurance Program, created in 1968 under LBJ on the theory that the private insurance market couldn't handle flood damage, presumed that Washington could. Like many of his Great Society initiatives, it has turned out to be an expensive tutorial on the perils of government intervention.

The program is set to expire at the end of July, but Congress will undoubtedly renew it sooner or later. Correcting its perverse incentives, however, may be a bridge too far.

Hurricane Harvey inundated a house in Kingwood, Texas last year—the 22nd time it has flooded since 1979. You might think that after the first or second disaster, those in charge of the insurance program would have offered to pay for the owner to rebuild—somewhere else.

But it was allowed to remain in harm's way. As of 2015, the government had paid $2.5 million in claims—"at last eight times what the house is worth," according to the Houston Chronicle.

A house outside of Baton Rouge, La., assessed at $56,000, has soaked up 40 floods and over $428,000 in insurance payouts. One in North Wildwood, New Jersey has been rebuilt 32 times.

Nationally, some 30,000 buildings classified as "severe repetitive loss properties" have been covered despite having been swamped an average of five times each. Homes in this category make up about one percent of the buildings covered by the flood insurance program—but 30 percent of the claims.

Their premiums don't cover the expected losses. But as National Resources Defense Council analyst Rob Moore told The Washington Post, "No congressman ever got unelected by providing cheap flood insurance."

That's one reason the program is $25 billion in debt. By underpricing coverage, the government encourages people to build in places that are doomed to go underwater. It also leaves other taxpayers high and dry, and not in a good way.

One explanation for the pattern is that the NFIP rules allow rebuilding only if the damage is less than half the value of the home. Otherwise, the owners must move or elevate their homes.

But local officials find it unpleasant to deliver such unpleasant news to flood victims, so they "lowball damage estimates, putting people and homes back in vulnerable places." The Chronicle found that in Galveston, after Hurricane Ike in 2008, dozens of properties had assessed damage of less than 50 percent—despite getting between eight and 15 feet of water.

If private insurers were providing coverage, you can be sure they would limit repeat claims in places vulnerable to costly storms. It would be less expensive if those whose homes keep flooding took buyouts so the land could be given over to frogs and sawgrass.

The federal program allows owners to choose that option. But it can take years for local governments to get the needed money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And there is no guarantee that owners will get buyouts in the end. The delay pushes them to swallow hard, fix the damage, and stay put.

The root of the problem is a familiar one: the people responsible for these decisions are not spending their own money. They find it easier to indulge the relative handful of flood victims than to attend to the interests of millions of taxpayers in general.

In a private program, an insurer that didn't enforce its rules with care and resolve would soon find itself out of business. Local, state, and federal agencies almost invariably survive no matter how poorly they manage their budgets.

Barring good luck, some coastal communities will soon be coping with torrential rains, high winds, and storm surges. But thanks to the flood insurance program, we're already in over our heads.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Brett Kavanaugh's Soft Spot for Police Abuses]]> http://reason.com/2018/07/16/brett-kavanaughs-soft-spot-for-police-ab/ 2018-07-16T04:01:00Z 2018-07-16T04:01:00Z The history of liberty in America features an endless battle over the rights of individuals versus the powers of police. The Constitution was written with the intent of protecting citizens and controlling cops. But that's not quite in keeping with the preferences of Brett Kavanaugh.

Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee made his views clear in a lecture paying tribute to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, delivered last year. What Rehnquist saw as one of his biggest achievements, Kavanaugh noted, was freeing law enforcement from the annoying restrictions placed on it in the 1960s and '70s. And Kavanaugh was there to second the motion.

Modern Americans take for granted that when police interrogate a suspect, they must first provide a "Miranda warning," noting his or her right to remain silent and get a lawyer. Otherwise, any confession will be thrown out of court. Most people are also familiar with the stipulation that if police conduct an illegal search, they may not use any evidence it yields.

But these simple rules didn't exist a few decades ago. Police routinely conducted searches without warrants in order to find evidence and win convictions. They also abused suspects in custody to get them to confess.

Things got better only when the Supreme Court acted to give real meaning to constitutional rights that had long been ignored. Rehnquist, however, never made peace with these decisions—and neither, apparently, has Kavanaugh.

The exclusionary rule forbids the use of evidence seized in an illegal raid. But Rehnquist thought it "was beyond the four corners of the Fourth Amendment's text and imposed tremendous costs on society," said Kavanaugh approvingly. "He believed that freeing obviously guilty violent criminals was not a proper remedy" and was not "required by the Constitution." Rehnquist had the same objection to the Miranda warning rule, which sometimes means letting a criminal go unpunished.

But the true obstacle to abusive cops is not these Supreme Court decisions. The true obstacle is the Constitution—which prohibits the government from carrying out "unreasonable searches and seizures" (the Fourth Amendment) or compelling a suspect "to be a witness against himself" (the Fifth). The remedies Rehnquist abhorred come into play only when cops have trampled on constitutional rights.

The case of Ernesto Miranda shows what happens without such rules. Police handcuffed him, took him to an interrogation room, and made him stand while they grilled him for four hours—spurning his request for a lawyer and keeping his lawyer, who had come to the station, from speaking with him.

In a crucial 1966 ruling, the Supreme Court said his treatment warranted throwing out his conviction. Rehnquist made clear that he would rather put up with such abuses than have the courts establish meaningful protections—and under him, the Court weakened those safeguards.

Another decision he didn't like involved Dollree Mapp, whose home was invaded by police, over her objection, without a search warrant and who was convicted of possessing sexually explicit material. The court overturned her conviction, establishing the rule barring evidence from unconstitutional searches.

When the court issued its decision, wrote University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar, several police superintendents "reacted to the adoption of the exclusionary rule as if the guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure had just been written."

The guarantees, of course, had been around since 1791. But many law enforcement agents had seen no reason to let them be a burden. If police had been scrupulously respecting those rights, the Supreme Court's requirement would not have affected them. Cops also routinely ignored the Fifth Amendment ban on forced testimony, using intimidation and physical abuse to extract confessions from both the innocent and the guilty.

The court had a choice in each instance: Devise a way to induce law enforcement agencies to abide by constitutional guarantees or let those guarantees be empty verbiage. We know which one Kavanaugh prefers.

Do these decisions sometimes benefit crooks? Yes. But as New York University law professor Stephen Schulhofer has written, the Framers understood that. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment "is to put some useful evidence out of reach and to make law enforcement more difficult," he writes. Ditto for the Fifth Amendment.

These requirements are now settled law, and police have adapted. But Kavanaugh betrays a yearning to return to the days when they didn't have to pay so much attention to the rights of those they detain. In that retro world, bad cops win. Good cops lose.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Debt Clock Keeps Spinning]]> http://reason.com/2018/07/05/the-debt-clock-keeps-spinning/ 2018-07-05T04:01:00Z 2018-07-05T04:01:00Z In 1989, a New York businessman who was worried about chronic federal budget deficits erected the National Debt Clock in midtown Manhattan to keep a running tally of how much the U.S. government owes. The total had reached $2.7 trillion, and Seymour Durst wanted "to call attention to the soaring debt and each family's share of it."

For a long time, it kept rising. In 1998, though, the clock abruptly stopped working. "The computer couldn't take it anymore," said Douglas Durst, who had succeeded his late father as head of the Durst Organization. "The numbers were too high."

But eventually, things changed. The government began piling up budget surpluses, and the clock ran backwards. In 2000, Durst decided to retire the clock. "It's served its purpose," he said.

He was mistaken, and he soon recognized the clock was still needed. In 2002, with red ink again rising, the clock was switched back on—showing $6.1 trillion. In 2008, though, when the debt blew past the $10 trillion mark, it no longer had enough space to display it. An upgrade was done so the clock could keep up as the debt rose above $19 trillion in 2016 and above $21 trillion this year.

That extra space will not go to waste. In June, the Congressional Budget Office issued a grim forecast.

Federal debt now equals 78 percent of gross domestic product, the highest since we had just finished fighting World War II. The CBO says that under current policies, it can be expected to "approach 100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade and 152 percent by 2048. That amount would be the highest in the nation's history by far."

The Trump administration pretends that its policies will unleash such rapid economic growth that the treasury will get a flood of new revenue. Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, bragged the other day that the deficit "is coming down, and it's coming down rapidly."

Later, he amended his false claim, saying that he "probably should have said future deficits." But that would also have been false. The CBO projects the deficit will balloon from $804 billion this year to $1.3 trillion in 2022.

What's wrong with running up more debt every year? It puts upward pressure on interest rates; it requires growing sums to service the debt; it pushes obligations off to future generations; and eventually, it runs the risk that the loans won't be repaid. Eventually, you become Puerto Rico.

Fiscal experts saw all this coming. Trump and the Republican Congress cooperated to cut taxes last year, but they have shown no stomach to cut spending. With a growing population of retirees, Social Security and Medicare outlays are on a steep upward trajectory. Federal outlays are expected to rise from 20.6 percent of GDP to 23.3 percent by 2028.

If that means bigger deficits, too bad. A spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth said in February, "We should not hold tax cuts hostage because Congress doesn't have the appetite to cut spending."

This failure maddens those conservatives who actually want to cut the budget. "Republicans were put on Earth to shrink government," wrote Manhattan Institute analyst Brian Riedl in National Review. "If they cannot do that, those who remain will soon find themselves having to raise taxes."

Democrats were not put on Earth to shrink government. And unlike Republicans, they don't mind raising taxes, at least on corporations and high-income households. But if you think a blue wave this November would wash away the red ink, you have not been paying attention.

The party sees nothing to be gained by vowing to cut federal programs—and victories to be won by promising to expand and add them. Among the items on the Democratic wish list is "Medicare for all." During his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders proposed a version that he priced at $1.4 trillion per year.

Free college tuition, which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed on her way to defeating Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York, would take $47 billion in federal funds per year under Sanders' plan. And the list doesn't end there.

How will they pay for it all? If Washington doesn't have enough money, it can always borrow, borrow and borrow some more.

At some point, the debt will grow so enormous that it will endanger our immediate economic health. But the people who maintain the debt clock will always have a job.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[In Afghanistan, We Persist in Futility]]> http://reason.com/2018/06/25/in-afghanistan-we-persist-in-futility/ 2018-06-25T04:01:00Z 2018-06-25T04:01:00Z The ceasefire in Afghanistan came to an unmistakable end Wednesday when 30 Afghan government soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack in a western province. You may not have noticed the end of the ceasefire because you may not have noticed the start of the ceasefire, just a few days earlier.

You should not feel guilty. Seventeen years after the U.S. invaded, there is still not much reason to pay attention to Afghanistan, because nothing ever changes much. Yet we remain there in the obstinate hope that something will. We stay because we don't know what else to do.

The simple fact is that we are not winning the war—and if you are not winning a war against an enemy fighting on his soil among his people, you are losing. In a protracted stalemate, insurgents are more likely to hang on as long as they have to. We can always go home. They are home.

Our efforts have amounted to an interminable, expensive failure. In May, the U.S. government's special inspector general for Afghanistan issued a "lessons learned" report that was a chronicle of futility.

"The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan," it said. "The large sums of stabilization dollars the United States devoted to Afghanistan in search of quick gains often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption, and bolstered support for insurgents." In short, we made things worse rather than better.

Our forces have repeatedly pushed boulders uphill and then watched them roll back down. "Successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians," said the report.

Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has been dropping a huge number of bombs—three times more in 2017 than in 2016, under Barack Obama. But the insurgents now control more of the country's territory than ever before.

Afghan civilians have been dying at a near-record pace this year, as they did in 2016 and 2017. Production of poppies, used to make heroin, set a record last year, even though the U.S. has lavished $8.6 billion since 2001 trying to wipe it out. "These numbers spell failure," said the special inspector general.

Gen. Austin Miller, the new U.S. commander there—the ninth, if you're counting—couldn't disguise the reality when he testified before a Senate committee Tuesday. "Military pressure alone is not sufficient to achieve a political solution to the Afghan conflict," he admitted. "I can't guarantee you a timeline or an end date."

Regardless, he argued, our presence serves the vital purpose of protecting our people by denying the enemy a refuge. But in November, the right-leaning Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded that Afghanistan is, yes, "a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland."

ISW analyst Caitlin Forrest told The New York Times, "The Afghanistan war is almost old enough to vote, and we have more groups that want to launch attacks against the U.S. operating there than we did when we started," One of them is the Islamic State, which didn't even exist when the war began.

Seated behind Miller at the hearing was his son, 2nd Lt. Austin Miller of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Recalling his first deployment to Afghanistan, the general said ruefully, "I never anticipated that his (age) cohort would be in a position to deploy (to Afghanistan) as I sat there in 2001 and looked at this."

Lately, there has been talk of a negotiated settlement. The ceasefire was initiated by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who hoped to lure the Taliban into peace talks. But the rebels spurned his request to extend the truce, and they say they won't negotiate with the Kabul regime.

They insist on direct engagement with the U.S. government, which has so far rejected the idea. Peace talks, if they come, would more likely be the result of U.S. exhaustion, not victory.

As in Vietnam, their purpose would be to allow us to leave with at least a hope that our client regime would survive. But in this war, as in that one, hope is usually unjustified.

Last month, The New Yorker profiled Patrick Skinner, who was deployed to Afghanistan several times as a CIA counterterrorism agent. Eventually, he attached a note to his ballistic vest in case he was killed. It said: "Tell my wife it was pointless."

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Needless Cruelty of Trump's Border Policy]]> https://reason.com/2018/06/21/the-needless-cruelty-of-trumps-border-po/ 2018-06-21T04:01:00Z 2018-06-21T04:01:00Z In 1729, an Irish political writer named Jonathan Swift noted with sorrow the large number of hungry children in Ireland and offered "a modest proposal" to solve the problem. His suggestion was for people to buy and eat them.

This option, he pointed out, would spare the children lives of poverty, prevent abortion and infanticide, relieve the burden on their parents, and "contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands."

Swift, of course, wasn't serious. He was satirizing the callous disregard of Ireland's British rulers for the suffering of their subjects.

Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are not joking. Compared with Swift's proposal, their policy of snatching toddlers from the arms of mothers who arrive in the United States to escape turmoil in Central America was exceedingly mild. No child has been eaten. By any other standard, their approach was a model of brutality, inflicting unspeakable horror on children and parents. It was so ugly that on Wednesday, Trump decided to drop it.

But that's a matter of political expediency, not humanity. After all, this is a president who has endorsed torture. In 2015, Trump said he favored waterboarding regardless of its efficacy in extracting information from suspected terrorists. "If it doesn't work," he said, "they deserve it anyway for what they're doing."

His border policy brought to mind John Yoo, a Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration. Asked in 2005 whether it would be legal for the president to order his subordinates to engage in torture "by crushing the testicles of the person's child," he answered, "I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that."

Trump insisted that family separation was an unfortunate result of enforcing the law. But those working for him said the goal was to terrify adult foreigners out of coming here in the first place. White House chief of staff John Kelly, who previously served as secretary of homeland security, defended taking kids from their parents because "a big name of the game is deterrence."

Never mind that most of these people come out of stark desperation. Never mind that we have obligations under our laws and treaties to grant refuge to foreigners who are fleeing persecution. Never mind that the majority of those who ask for asylum and are released actually show up for their hearings, negating the need for detention.

Let's not overthink what Trump did. The administration doesn't like undocumented immigrants, whom it wants to shut out completely. It doesn't like legal immigrants, whose numbers it proposes to drastically reduce. It doesn't like refugees and has reduced their admissions by more than half. It doesn't like Muslims, even as tourists.

Its treatment of the families coming across the southern border has been motivated not by a devotion to upholding the law but by hostility to foreigners—at least nonwhite ones.

Remember Trump's idea of sound immigration policy: "We should have more people from places like Norway."

The firm belief of Trump and his supporters is that an influx of refugees from Latin America will bring crime, drugs, and other social ills. But we ran that experiment with Cubans, hundreds of thousands of whom came as refugees in the 1960s and '70s—some because Fidel Castro decided to empty out jails and mental institutions.

How well have they adjusted? Cuban-Americans born in this country generally have higher incomes and more education than the average native. More than half of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Trump.

The Justice Department adopted a "zero tolerance" policy of arresting everyone entering without a valid visa. That strict approach, it claimed, left it with no choice but to separate children from their parents. It said the alternative—releasing the adults until their court dates—would invite the asylum-seekers to vanish and stay here illegally.

Keeping families in detention together rather than separated is a modest improvement. But there are less harsh options. The organization Human Rights First reports, "Of the individuals who filed for asylum in 2014 and had legal representation, 97 percent of women with children and 98 percent of unaccompanied children were in full compliance with their immigration court appearance obligations as of December 2017."

If you want to prevent these people from absconding, you could provide them with lawyers. You could fit them with ankle bracelets and monitor their whereabouts. You could expand the number of immigration courts to greatly accelerate asylum processing.

You can crack down on unauthorized entrants while avoiding cruelty if you want to. But you have to want to.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[How Trump's Republican Party Went Soft on Communism]]> http://reason.com/2018/06/18/how-trumps-republican-party-went-soft-on/ 2018-06-18T04:01:00Z 2018-06-18T04:01:00Z If you had told Ronald Reagan in 1988 that in 30 years, the president of the United States would be chummy with communist dictators in China and North Korea, eager to please a brutal Kremlin autocrat, and indifferent to the needs of our military allies, he might have said: That's what you get for electing a Democrat.

Today's Republicans make up a party he wouldn't recognize. For decades, the Russians and Chinese dispatched spies and enlisted American sympathizers to try to harm the United States and tilt its policies in their favor. Under Donald Trump, they don't have to. They have a friend in the Oval Office.

It's the most astonishing reversal in modern American political history. Over the past century, the right accused liberals and Democrats of excusing the crimes of Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro. Often, the criticism was well-founded.

Harvard's John King Fairbank, the dean of American China scholars, spoke for many on the left in 1972 when he said the communist revolution was "the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in centuries." President Jimmy Carter, who spurned Americans' "inordinate fear of communism," was shocked by the invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, he lamented, "lied to me."

Conservatives saw Carter as a starry-eyed dupe. "The most flagrant offenders of human rights including the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba have been the beneficiaries of administration good will, while nations friendly to the United States have suffered the loss of U.S. commercial access and economic and military assistance," said the 1980 Republican platform.

"The evidence of the Soviet threat to American security has never been more stark and unambiguous, nor has any president ever been more oblivious to this threat and its potential consequences," the platform added. "The president's failure to shoulder the burden of leadership in the Western alliance has placed America in danger without parallel since December 7, 1941."

All these charges have deafening echoes today. But this time, the credulous appeaser failing our allies is a Republican president. For communist dictators such as Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, Trump exudes admiration and amity. To the anti-Western Russian President Vladimir Putin, he offered congratulations for winning a rigged election.

When it comes to Canada's Justin Trudeau and Germany's Angela Merkel, by contrast, he seethes with resentment. With Trump, it's better to be a long-standing American adversary than a faithful ally.

That about-face strains belief. More incredible still is that the Republican Party has chosen to follow his lead. GOP leaders and conservative commentators have turned themselves inside out praising behavior they would have torched had it come from a Democratic administration.

This new outlook might be defensible if it were the product of a conscious, informed reassessment of our role in a changing world. But it's not. It's almost entirely the product of the takeover of the Republican Party by Trump. Anything he says immediately becomes its semiofficial policy—no matter how deeply it contradicts past doctrines.

The pattern is uncannily reminiscent of the Communist Party USA in the years leading up to World War II. First it opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a capitalist lackey. Then, as fascist movements rose in Europe, it joined with noncommunists on the left in "popular front" organizations that aligned with FDR in opposing fascism.

An abrupt turnabout came in 1939, when Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler. American Communists jumped to defend this cooperation with the Nazis—and condemned Roosevelt for providing aid to Britain, which was at war with Germany.

When Hitler and Stalin proceeded to divide up Poland by force—putting millions of Polish Jews under Nazi rule—the party defended the dismemberment. When Hitler shocked Stalin by invading the Soviet Union, American Communists shifted yet again, getting behind Roosevelt and calling to help the countries fighting Germany.

Many members of the Communist Party USA couldn't stomach these grotesque reversals and chose to leave. But many remained loyal, quickly changing their beliefs to fit whatever the Kremlin did.

"Both the CPUSA leaders and the rank and file absorbed Stalin's ideological hatreds as their own," wrote the peerless historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes. These Communists wore "special glasses that allowed them to see only what Moscow saw and that rendered all else invisible."

Republicans of 50 or even five years ago would be appalled at how Trump has reshaped American foreign policy. But then, they weren't wearing special glasses that warped their vision. They were seeing clearly.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Giuliani and Trump Blunder Toward the North Korea Summit]]> http://reason.com/2018/06/11/giuliani-and-trump-blunder-toward-the-no/ 2018-06-11T04:01:00Z 2018-06-11T04:01:00Z Rudy Giuliani, who knows as much about North Korea as he does about growing kumquats, has granted an inside glimpse of U.S. relations with the regime. With a historic summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un scheduled for Tuesday in Singapore, Giuliani wants the American people to know exactly how it came about.

Last month, Trump responded to unwelcome statements from North Korea by abruptly canceling the summit. This decision came because the North Koreans "said they were going to go to nuclear war against us and they were going to defeat us in a nuclear war," Giuliani said at a conference in Israel. "Well, Kim Jong Un got back on his hands and knees and begged for it, which is exactly the position you want to put him in."

It's safe to assume that Giuliani, being Trump's personal lawyer and not his secretary of state, is pristinely devoid of any firsthand knowledge of this matter. His account, in fact, sounds eerily as though it came verbatim from one of Trump's bragfests. But what is known from the public record does not validate the tale.

It was actually the Trump administration that was talking about destroying the North Korean regime. National security adviser John Bolton recommended "the Libya model" for denuclearization. In 2011, as the North Koreans vividly remember, NATO bombed Moammar Gadhafi's forces and he was soon toppled and killed.

In case Kim imagined this remark to be an unfortunate slip of the tongue, Mike Pence underlined it in red. "This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn't make a deal," he said.

The Pyongyang government, which had candidly expressed its "repugnance" for Bolton, called the vice president "a political dummy" whose comments were "ignorant and stupid."

Trump was not about to tolerate this insult to his most faithful lap dog. "Trump and his aides were infuriated by the statement and wanted to respond forcefully," CNN reported. "The specific and personal targeting of Pence is what irked U.S. officials, three people familiar with the matter said."

Giuliani says the summit was saved only when Kim came crawling back. This claim is not terribly credible, given the regime's long record of threats, defiance and immovability on matters it cares about. And when Trump met at the White House with a high-level North Korean envoy, the president did not give the impression of a tough negotiator.

Reported The New York Times: "Sung-Yoon Lee, a scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said Mr. Trump stuffed a variety of 'unnecessary concessions' into a 'goody bag for Kim Jong Un.' Among them were easing up on 'maximum pressure,' agreeing to a longer time frame, validating Mr. Kim as a leader by promising more summit meetings, and signaling that China, Japan and South Korea should ready economic aid."

Even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned Trump, "You have to not want the deal too much." Trump is the guy who vowed that Mexico would pay for a border wall and then, realizing it would never happen, pleaded with the Mexican president to go along with the ruse.

But let's suppose Kim did kowtow to Trump in an attempt to resurrect the summit. Let's suppose Trump's fierce determination left the North Koreans no choice but to capitulate. In that case, the last thing he and his minions should do is do an end-zone dance before a satisfactory deal has even been reached. This is not a football game.

Such trash-talking not only encourages Kim to up his demands at the bargaining table to prove he's no wimp but also discourages any regime from making concessions to the U.S.—or even negotiating with this administration, which feels free to disclose or even invent facts about behind-the-scenes bartering.

Anytime you interact with Trump in private, you have to worry that he will publicly misrepresent what happened as part of his ceaseless quest for self-glorification. You have to assume his cronies will rush out to portray you as a pathetic loser.

In a normal administration, functioning with a modicum of discipline and direction, the president's personal attorney would not be braying on national TV about critical matters of foreign policy, and the president would not be letting him. But today, our security and survival are in the hands of fools, knaves, and incompetents.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[How Trump's Tariffs Will Harm National Security]]> http://reason.com/2018/06/04/how-trumps-tariffs-harm-national-securit/ 2018-06-04T04:01:00Z 2018-06-04T04:01:00Z American motorists have never had it so good. Cars and trucks are better than ever, and their prices have barely risen in this century. A host of automakers here and abroad compete fiercely to satisfy every whim a driver could have.

And I do mean every whim. The Subaru Ascent SUV offers eight seats but 19 cup holders. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reports, Ford filed a patent application for "a gyroscopic cup holder to keep a drink upright while accelerating, braking or 'while the vehicle travels upward at an incline.'"

These developments are more remarkable when you consider that the first car with built-in cup holders didn't arrive until 1983. Until then, vehicles were only slightly less austere than a stagecoach.

Today's cars also feature other innovations that even the Jetsons could not have imagined—backup cameras, navigation devices, air bags, collision avoidance systems, TVs, and much more. Anything people desire, it's safe to say, automakers are either providing or figuring out how to provide.

But it appears drivers are about to be banished from this asphalt Eden. The Trump administration has begun an investigation to determine whether imported passenger vehicles undermine national security. It argues that when Toyota or Volkswagen sells you a car that was built abroad, it puts Americans at risk.

Wrong. In the first place, we don't require a domestic supply of RAV4s to fight the next wars. In the second, we don't go begging our enemies for shipments of passenger sedans and crossovers. We buy them from our allies, who have a stake in our well-being.

The only way Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross can treat auto imports as a national security matter is to claim that they damage our economy. "Without a strong economy," he claims, "you can't have a strong national security."

Oh? The Soviet Union was a superpower even though it was notorious for making shoddy consumer goods—and never enough of them. North Korea, which suffers chronic food shortages and a miserably low standard of living, presents a serious military threat to South Korea, Japan, and even the U.S., which are economic giants by comparison.

But the bigger flaw in Ross' argument is the assumption that imports harm the economy. In fact, they enlarge it and invigorate it while improving the welfare of consumers and businesses. A nation that produced everything for itself would be a materially poor one.

International trade lets us acquire more goods and services at lower costs. It makes the nation wealthier, which makes it possible to invest more in the military, intelligence agencies, and other institutions that protect us from enemies foreign and domestic.

Slapping foreign-made autos with a 25 percent tariff, which is what the administration has in mind, would only impoverish us. It would raise the price of cars and trucks—not just imports but also domestic ones. If the price of a German car were to jump, makers of comparable American models would be free to raise their own prices without fear.

Trump's tariffs would undoubtedly be passed on to consumers. A new RAV4, which currently goes for about $25,000, would probably go for about $31,000. Luxury cars would get an even bigger increase. An Audi A6 sedan's price, now around $50,000, would jump by about $12,000.

It's not just new cars that would get more expensive. Used cars would suddenly be in greater demand, pushing their prices up too.

That's not counting the effects of the duties the administration has imposed on imported steel and aluminum, which will raise the cost of passenger vehicles made in this country. It's no tonic for the economy to punish consumers in this way.

Motorists who need to replace their wheels would feel the pain, and so would companies that buy or lease vehicles. But the suffering would not be confined to them.

If consumers spend more on cars, they will have less to spend on other needs. What Ford and General Motors hope to gain, Target and McDonald's stand to lose. Any jobs added in the auto industry will be matched by layoffs in other sectors.

It makes no sense to dole out such pain to our trade partners and military allies. The national security pretext is based on a gross misunderstanding of economics and a myopic disdain for geopolitics.

The administration makes international trade policy as if we don't have friends. At the rate it's going, we won't.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Roseanne Barr and the Persistence of Prejudice]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/31/roseanne-barr-and-the-persistence-of-pre/ 2018-05-31T04:01:00Z 2018-05-31T04:01:00Z The tweet that caused an uproar that led to the cancellation of Roseanne Barr's ABC sitcom was a reminder of the most illuminating and depressing reality of our time: the stubborn centrality of race and racism in our national life.

It has been more than half a century since Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, which Americans of that era assumed would set the nation on the road to confronting and eliminating the blight of discrimination and prejudice. But this year, a major network provided a weekly platform to an entertainer who once referred to Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, as "a man with big swinging ape balls."

ABC should have known what it was getting with Barr, whose show it dropped after she likened Valerie Jarrett, another black Obama aide, to an ape. But the network had been willing to overlook her nasty side in hopes of appealing to those forgotten souls who voted for Donald Trump.

Rice and Jarrett are Stanford alumni with enviable records of academic and professional achievement who have served their country in high positions of trust. Yet the only trait that appears to matter to Barr, a high school dropout, is that they are African-American, which to her means they are more like beasts than humans.

When the civil rights laws were enacted, it was common for whites to use the N-word. Even Lyndon Johnson, who pushed these measures through a Congress riddled with segregationists, was known to use it. Today, the epithet is heard far less among whites. But many who know better than to be so frank in their contempt for blacks find other ways to convey it.

Obama himself got this treatment so often that the website The Awl published "A Guide to Racist Obama Monkey Photoshops." Donald Trump's New York campaign co-chair told a reporter that Michelle Obama should be sent to "the outback of Zimbabwe" to live "in a cave with Maxie the gorilla."

The essence of these comments is that no matter how much intelligence, education, money, or renown an African-American has, he or she can never be the equal of a white person.

That prejudice has persisted despite being disowned by our laws and rejected by most whites. Last year, a National Opinion Research Center poll found that 26 percent of Republicans think blacks are less intelligent than whites—as do 18 percent of Democrats. To be an African-American is to be endlessly subjected to assumptions of inferiority.

Obama's election to the presidency appeared to mark a historic achievement, entrusting the most powerful job on the planet to a black man. But it also turned out to be a powerful goad to white fear and anger.

Trump's success would have been impossible without Obama, who was especially threatening to bigots not because he and his wife resembled the racist stereotype but because they refuted it so thoroughly.

Over and over, Trump has voiced and encouraged distrust of blacks, from demanding the death penalty for the teenagers wrongly convicted in a 1989 Central Park rape to questioning whether Obama was born in the United States and whether he was qualified for admission to his Ivy League alma maters. Trump's prejudice is not limited to blacks; Hispanics and Muslims are included.

In the 2016 election, race was a central factor. Whites in every age group preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. Several studies indicate that racism was his ally.

"Racial resentment, anti-Muslim attitudes, and white identity were all much stronger predictors of support for Trump in the 2016 primaries than they were for prior Republican nominees," wrote Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine. "Racially resentful whites without a college degree were most likely to flee the Democratic Party during Obama's presidency."

Obama's election raised hopes that Americans could finally overcome the racial enmities and tensions of the past. "His talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America," wrote Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele in 2008.

But despite his caution on the issue, Obama's presence in the White House roused deep anxieties among many white voters. Those anxieties have manifested themselves in overt white nationalism, anti-immigrant furies, the rise of Trump, and the popularity of Roseanne.

Many whites have long thought of our race problem as a national disease that will eventually be cured. But maybe it's a permanent affliction that we can only hope to manage.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Long Nightmare of the Dreamers]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/28/the-long-nightmare-of-the-dreamers/ 2018-05-28T04:01:00Z 2018-05-28T04:01:00Z A lot has happened in America since April 25, 2001—the 9/11 attacks, two major wars, the Great Recession, the first black president, the iPhone, a Cubs World Series title, and Donald Trump. That was the day the Dream Act, to protect young immigrants brought here illegally as children, was first introduced in Congress. Seventeen years later, they are still waiting for protection.

The fate of those immigrants, known as Dreamers, is stark evidence of the mind-numbing irrationality and dysfunction of our system of government. They did nothing wrong; they have contributed to American society; and they can be accommodated without harmful side effects.

The great majority of Americans reject this treatment. A January ABC News/Washington Post poll found that when asked if they supported a "program that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States if they arrived here as a child, completed high school or military service and have not been convicted of a serious crime," a staggering 87 percent of Americans said yes.

Yet year after year, the simple, sensible, humane solution has remained on the shelf. President George W. Bush failed to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill with this included. President Barack Obama was also unsuccessful.

In 2012, Obama finally elected to shield many of these young people with an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Some 800,000 immigrants who qualified got permits to stay here and work. But the program was of uncertain legality, and Donald Trump decided last year to end it.

DACA is now in the hands of the federal courts, some of which have blocked its termination. It is also in the hands of Congress, which could approve the Dream Act in some form. But despite broad public sentiment for letting the Dreamers stay, nothing has been enacted and nothing is likely to be.

Granting them a path to citizenship is more than anti-immigration Republicans can tolerate. In closing down the program, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DACA has "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs."

This is a hard argument to make at a time when the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, the lowest since 2000. As economists universally agree, immigrants (documented or not) not only fill jobs but create them. Since Obama announced the program, the economy has added more than 12 million jobs.

Trump, whose understanding of the policy is close to nil, recently claimed that "caravans" of Central Americans marching through Mexico to cross the border were "trying to take advantage of DACA." But DACA applied only to youngsters who arrived by June 2007. Even the Dream Act would cover only people who came at least four years before its enactment.

Critics regard any accommodation as "amnesty," the term used for the legal status offered to some 3 million unauthorized foreigners in legislation signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. Granting refuge to the dreamers, we are told, would stimulate unauthorized immigration by rewarding those who violated the law.

This is wrong for two main reasons. The first is that the foreigners it helps didn't choose to break the law: They were brought by their parents. Many have no memory of or acquaintance with their native lands. Most come from Mexico or Central America, but some don't speak Spanish. Some grew up thinking they were citizens.

To banish them to unfamiliar foreign countries would punish them for the transgressions of their parents. Those known to be dangerous—like the MS-13 "animals" Trump denounces—would not be eligible.

The second fallacy is the notion that the Dream Act would be a magnet pulling in hordes of undocumented migrants. The potential beneficiaries have waited 17 years for a law offering them protection. If it were passed, the typical recipient would have to wait another 13 years to apply for citizenship.

Even if such legislation were enacted into law, there can't be many foreigners who would bet their lives that another version will be adopted decades from now. Not to mention that the foreigners pondering that wager would know that in the best scenario, they would never gain legal status; only their children would. Some incentive.

As it happens, though, there is hardly any chance Congress and the president will act to protect these innocents from the threat of bitter exile. Unable to muster wisdom and resolve, our policymakers will default to cruelty.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Will Iran and North Korea Capitulate to Trump?]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/24/will-iran-and-north-korea-capitulate-to/ 2018-05-24T04:01:00Z 2018-05-24T04:01:00Z American presidents have spent countless hours negotiating with adversaries to reach mutually bearable compromises on matters of security. The Trump administration, however, doesn't believe in negotiating or compromise. It believes in making demands and issuing threats to force the other side to capitulate.

This is how the administration approaches both Iran and North Korea. In a speech Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed 12 concessions that will be required of Iran, from ending all its nuclear activities forever to withdrawing from Syria to cutting off aid to armed militant groups in the Middle East.

Pompeo realizes Iran may not leap to make his wishes come true. So he has a couple of clubs in the closet.

The first is "the strongest sanctions in history," which would leave Iran "battling to keep its economy alive." The second is to go after "Iranian operatives" and their surrogates and "crush them." If Iran restarts its nuclear program, he thundered, "it will mean bigger problems than they'd ever had before."

This strategy matches what Donald Trump used toward Kim Jong Un: Demand the regime give up its nukes; apply "maximum pressure" through sanctions; and warn of "fire and fury." Trump claimed a historic breakthrough by arranging a summit with Kim next month.

But the North Koreans haven't given up anything important yet, and they've threatened to cancel over the denuclearization demand—which Trump softened Tuesday. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spurned Pompeo: "Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?"

Trump and his advisers, however, think they have made both regimes an offer they can't refuse: Capitulate or die, either by economic strangulation or by a barrage of U.S. missiles. There is no reason to think either will comply.

Both tactics have been tried before. We maintained a trade blockade on communist Cuba for more than half a century, and the government survived. So did Iraqi President Saddam Hussein under stringent sanctions in the years between the first and second wars with the U.S.

Our experience with North Korea is discouraging. In 1994, after President Bill Clinton ordered a military buildup on the peninsula, it signed an agreement to abandon its nuclear quest—only to be caught cheating years later. President George W. Bush tightened sanctions and rattled sabers in response to the violations, to no avail.

Iran may see nothing to gain from buckling under. John Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar at the University of Chicago who visited Iran in December, told me, "My sense is that most of those who negotiated the nuclear deal regretted it, because the sanctions have never really been taken off." Having tried once to escape sanctions, the regime is unlikely to trust any U.S. commitment.

Nor is it clear the administration can make sanctions hurt as much as they once did. Before, we had the cooperation of China, Russia, and the European Union, none of whom is behind us now. North Korea has always had help from China—which may not be willing to do more to squeeze its economy.

"I've studied every instance of economic sanctions since 1914; Trump's plan flies in the face of virtually every study of economic sanctions," Robert Pape, another University of Chicago professor, told me. The main debate among experts, he says, is about whether, as a rule, sanctions are "marginally ineffective or counterproductive."

The administration places its ultimate faith in the military option. It thinks Iran and North Korea would back down rather than invite war.

But the Tehran government may figure it could survive a U.S. attack and restart its nuclear program at sites our bombs couldn't reach. It could retaliate by launching missiles at Tel Aviv.

North Korea, which has dozens of nuclear warheads, probably believes it could deter an attack by vowing to vaporize Seoul, Tokyo, or even Washington. There is also the risk that China would enter the fight against us—as it did in 1950.

When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, it promised a quick and easy triumph, only to find itself in an endless bloody slog. If Trump fails to get his way and opts for war, the consequences could be disastrous in the case of Iran and apocalyptic in the case of North Korea.

It's nice to dream that we can impose our preferences on the world by issuing commands. But as Defense Secretary James Mattis has been known to point out, the enemy also gets a vote.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Why Young Americans Are Drawn to Socialism]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/21/why-young-americans-are-drawn-to-sociali/ 2018-05-21T04:01:00Z 2018-05-21T04:01:00Z Capitalism has been the most dynamic force for economic progress in history. Over the past century, it has delivered billions of people out of miserable poverty, raised living standards to once-unimaginable heights, and enabled an unprecedented flourishing of productive creativity. But among young Americans, it finds itself on trial.

The University of Chicago's GenForward Survey of Americans ages 18 to 34 finds that 62 percent think "we need a strong government to handle today's complex economic problems," with just 35 percent saying "the free market can handle these problems without government being involved."

Overall, 49 percent in this group hold a favorable opinion of capitalism—and 45 percent have a positive view of socialism. Socialism gets higher marks than capitalism from Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans. Sixty-one percent of Democrats take a positive view of socialism—and so do 25 percent of Republicans.

Contrast the millennials' opinions with those of their parents. A survey last year found that only 26 percent of baby boomers would prefer to live in a socialist country. Among young people, the figure was 44 percent.

What explains this generational divergence? The first factor is that young adults may take for granted the bounty capitalism has bestowed, from cellphones to inexpensive air travel to an endless array of food and beverage options. They can't remember the time when those things didn't exist.

But they will never forget the pain and uncertainty caused by the brutal recession of 2007-09, which has taken years to overcome. Financial catastrophe is bound to foster disenchantment with the economic order.

The Great Depression of the 1930s gave rise to a far more powerful and intrusive federal government—and caused some people to embrace communism. This found an echo in the Great Recession, as a lot of young people reached adulthood in a dismal job market. Their earnings and advancement suffered—and the effects persist.

Many of them associate capitalism with crisis, not progress. That may change as the economy continues expanding. But some of capitalism's more dogmatic advocates have done it lasting harm.

For eight years, as the economy steadily improved, many Republicans denounced President Barack Obama as a socialist out to demolish the free market. Obama left office with a 77 percent approval rating among millennials. If he was a socialist, many of them must have decided, socialism can't be so bad.

Without that experience, Bernie Sanders could not have come so close to getting the Democratic nomination in 2016. The socialist label lost much of its stigma from being cynically overused by the right.

The demise of Marxism in so many countries has actually been a boon to the left. Socialism was once seen as the path to communism. But with the Soviet Union dead and China only pretending to be socialist, those fears have faded.

It doesn't help the reputation of capitalism that many of those fervently opposed to government interference and redistribution are strongly at odds with millennials on social issues—including gay rights, racial inequality, immigration, gun control, and abortion rights.

The refusal of most conservatives to recognize the human role in global warming alienates those who will have to live with the environmental damage their elders did. In many minds, free markets have been discredited by their association with intolerance, rejection of science, and disregard for the poor.

For baby boomers, the champion of capitalism was Ronald Reagan. For millennials, it's Donald Trump. Among those who are 15 to 34, a recent poll found, two-thirds disapprove of his performance as president—and most regard him as "dishonest," "racist," and "mentally unfit."

What millennials may not realize is that many of the distinctive burdens they face are caused at least as much by government involvement as by free markets. Federal loans and grants have pushed up college tuition. Medicare inflates demand for health care. High housing costs in New York and San Francisco owe a lot to rent control and land-use restrictions.

When markets are allowed to work, they continue to generate innovations that expand options and reduce costs. Amazon, Apple, Uber, Starbucks, and Walmart have made life better for consumers. Food and clothing take less of our disposable income than ever before. Cars, TVs, and appliances are better and more reliable than they used to be.

In the end, though, economic systems have to retain their moral and political legitimacy if they are to last. Capitalism has always had to overcome its critics. But today, it may suffer more from its friends.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Sports Betting Will Complete the Gambling Revolution]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/17/sports-betting-will-complete-the-gamblin/ 2018-05-17T04:01:00Z 2018-05-17T04:01:00Z We think of revolutions as sudden, spectacular events, much like earthquakes or erupting volcanoes that transform the landscape overnight. But sometimes they occur so slowly and quietly that it's possible to overlook how much change they bring about.

Over the past generation, the United States has undergone a gambling revolution. A pastime once seen as the sordid province of mobsters, grifters, and wastrels has become an all-American form of fun.

Last year, some 81 million people visited casinos—more than the number who attended Major League Baseball games. About half of American adults say they've bought lottery tickets in the past 12 months. Nearly 60 million people in the U.S. and Canada take part in fantasy sports leagues, which often involve money. Gambling is a diversion that effortlessly soars over categories of age, gender, income, race, and political party.

Religious objections are not necessarily dispositive. The joke in Utah is: "Catholics don't recognize birth control, Jews don't recognize Jesus, and Mormons don't recognize each other in Nevada."

Evangelical Christians view gambling as an affront to the 10th commandment—"You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his." But one of the nation's largest gambling meccas is Biloxi, Mississippi, deep in the Bible Belt. Years ago, former Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Clarke Reed explained, "The attitude is it's really bad but I'm really enjoying it."

The enjoyment endures, and the guilt has been too mild to reverse the growing popularity of various types of wagering. With Monday's Supreme Court decision striking down a federal law that prohibited states from acting to legalize sports betting, the gambling revolution looks close to completion.

The change may not even be apparent to younger Americans, who grew up in a country where casinos, lotteries, and racetracks are about as unusual as a Walmart Supercenter. These people may not realize that until 1978, anyone with an urge to patronize a casino had to go to Nevada. In the 1960s, only New Hampshire and New York had state lotteries.

Today, there are casinos (commercial, tribal, or both) in 40 states. Lotteries are offered in 44 states and the District of Columbia. We have gone from a strong presumption against legal gambling to a strong presumption in favor of it.

The Supreme Court decision opens the way for states to allow something that has been popular in many places but legal only in Nevada—wagering on actual athletic contests. If this activity were not popular, newspapers and ESPN wouldn't offer betting lines on a raft of professional and college games every day.

This titanic shift didn't occur because Americans abruptly shed their inhibitions. It occurred because states experimented with legal gambling and found the results agreeable, or at least tolerable. Each new venture provided more information—and the more information the public had the more comfortable it became letting people wager with the blessing of the law.

The opponents of legal gambling advised the Supreme Court that if it allowed states to make their own decisions on sports betting, rivers would run red and plagues of locusts would descend upon us. A group of organizations led by Stop Predatory Gambling filed a brief warning that legal sports wagering would "exploit the financially desperate, exacerbate crime, cultivate addiction" and impose "enormous social costs."

But if this were a poker game, these groups would have to fold. Harvard Medical School researchers Howard Shaffer and Ryan Martin have found that despite the explosion of legal gambling options since the 1970s, the incidence of pathological gambling in the U.S. populace has stayed the same—below 1 percent.

The national proliferation of gambling establishments has been accompanied by a sharp decline in the national rates of violent crime and property crime. In 1999, a government-funded commission said the evidence indicated that "communities with casinos are just as safe as communities that do not have casinos." If casinos begin offering action on NFL or NBA games, that's not likely to change.

Legal gambling is not a magic formula for economic prosperity or fiscal health. Nor is it an instrument to destroy communities. It's just another business that provides consumers with something they want at a price they are willing to pay.

Every claim made by opponents of sports betting has been made before about other types of gambling. By now, we know they're bluffing.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[California's Boneheaded Solar Remedy for Climate Change]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/14/californias-boneheaded-solar-remedy-for/ 2018-05-14T04:01:00Z 2018-05-14T04:01:00Z In the world of government policy, two chief dangers always loom. The first is people with bad intentions using every available means to achieve their malignant goals. The second, more common but no less destructive, is people with the purest of hearts and the most boneheaded of methods.

For an example of the latter, look west, where the California Energy Commission just decreed that starting in 2020, new homes must be equipped with solar panels. Commissioner Andrew McAllister boasted that the rule "will propel the state even further down the road to a low emissions future."

He has the right idea. With environmental vandals in charge of the federal government, the state's leaders are justifiably motivated to do what they can to combat climate change.

"We don't want to do nothing and just sit there and let the climate get worse," Gov. Jerry Brown said last year. California is at particular risk from global warming, which will inundate low-lying areas of its 840-mile coastline with rising salt water while fostering more droughts and wildfires inland.

Its utilities are already on track to get half their energy from solar and other renewable sources as soon as 2020. The state is also fighting the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to gut controls on vehicle tailpipe emissions. The energy commission says the solar panels and other requirements will cut a typical new home's energy consumption by 53 percent—"equivalent to taking 115,000 fossil fuel cars off the road."

But there are three major flaws in this approach. The first is that it's a highly inefficient way to expand solar energy. University of California, Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein told the commission that he and the vast majority of energy economists "believe that residential rooftop solar is a much more expensive way to move towards renewable energy than larger solar and wind installations."

No kidding. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory figures that on a kilowatt-hour basis, electricity from home solar panels costs 2 1/2 times more than electricity from large solar facilities operated by utilities.

The California approach brings to mind Mao Zedong's call in the 1950s for Chinese peasants to build steel furnaces in their backyards. Many vital tasks are done best on a huge scale, and generating electricity is one of them.

Another drawback is that it will aggravate the state's most notorious problem—astronomical housing costs. The median home price is now $524,000, in large part because of regulations that make every attempt to put up new housing only slightly less challenging than the Normandy invasion. California has fewer residential units per person than 48 other states. It's a major reason more people are leaving the state than coming.

The new mandate will be another burden on new home construction and purchase because it is expected to add $10,000 or more to the cost. Not a big bump, percentage wise, but enough to make a difference—particularly at the lower end of the market, where the people least able to cope are found. And the claim that the solar gear will more than pay for itself over the life of a mortgage will be cold comfort to those who can't qualify for the mortgage.

It's another bundle of straw on a camel that is already staggering under its load. The state government might as well ask developers and contractors, "What part of 'get lost' do you not understand?"

Niskanen Center analyst David Bookbinder says, "The big problem in California is transportation emissions." Last year, the California Air Resources Board noted that in 2015, emissions from producing electricity fell by more than 5 percent. But those from vehicles rose by 3 percent. Focusing on home solar power is akin to attacking obesity by putting marathon runners on a diet.

A steep gasoline tax would be the simplest way to get motorists to drive less and buy cars that burn less gasoline—or electric vehicles. The current excise taxes on gas amount to just 58 cents a gallon, which is not enough to take many gas guzzlers off the road. If anything, the solar mandate will stimulate more driving as higher home prices induce Californians to move farther from their jobs and endure longer commutes.

Environmentalists in California and beyond have good cause to fear and resist the powerful enemies now in charge of federal policy. But they should also guard against the folly of their friends.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Undocumented Immigrants Make America Safer]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/10/undocumented-immigrants-make-us-safer/ 2018-05-10T04:01:00Z 2018-05-10T04:01:00Z From the beginning of his campaign for president, Donald Trump portrayed illegal immigration as a forest fire that threatens to spread rapidly and engulf us all. Mexicans, he charged, are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." He thought Americans should be afraid.

He's still blaring that message. Last month, he tweeted angrily that a "caravan" of Hondurans was marching northward through Mexico to pour across the Rio Grande. "Getting more dangerous," he warned.

In San Diego on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed the alarm. Raising the specter that we could be "overwhelmed" by a "stampede" of invaders, he vowed to "finally secure this border so that we can get the American people the safety and peace of mind that they deserve."

When these two are done in Washington, they can go into the business of making horror movies—which, like these claims, are not rooted in reality. The Honduran "caravan" is more scared than scary, consisting of a bedraggled, footsore group of unfortunates who fled violence and poverty in the hope of gaining asylum in the United States.

Irineo Mujica, who works for an advocacy group that is helping them, told The New York Times: "There are 300 kids and 400 women. Babies with bibs and milk bottles, not armaments. How much of a threat can they be?" Besides, they don't have to stampede over the border. They are legally allowed to arrive at immigration checkpoints and apply for sanctuary.

But for Trump and Sessions, anyone who comes here without a visa evokes fear and hatred. The president and his attorney general ignore the real dangers posed by most undocumented foreigners: They will fill jobs that Americans don't want, learn English, pay taxes, and stay out of trouble. Chilling, huh?

The president relishes lurid tales of the criminal gang MS-13. Last year, he said, "They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields."

No one disputes that MS-13 is a violent gang, but it's just one of many that plague American cities. All that distinguishes this one is that many of its members came from Central America, some without documents—allowing Trump to blame its villainy on illegal immigration. He thinks undocumented immigrants are criminals by definition and therefore a hellish danger.

But he's railing against a threat that exists largely in his mind. Trump failed to notice that the big wave of unauthorized immigration that came in the 1990s coincided with a plunge in crime and violence.

In 1990, there were about 3.5 million undocumented foreigners in this country, and the national murder rate was 9.4 per 100,000 people. When the undocumented population peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, the murder rate was 5.6 per 100,000—a decline of 40 percent—and it has fallen more since then.

Far from generating crime, this group appears to suppress it. A groundbreaking new state-by-state study covering 1990 to 2014 by sociologists Michael Light of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ty Miller of Purdue in the journal Criminology concludes that "undocumented immigration over this period is generally associated with decreasing violence."

In another study, Light, Miller, and Brian Kelly (also of Purdue) found that "increased undocumented immigration was significantly associated with reductions in drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests."

The question Light and his colleagues examined, he told me, is: "Does undocumented immigration make us less safe?" The answer: "No." If anything, he says, the evidence "suggests the opposite."

Policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute examined the evidence on crime from Texas. He found that unauthorized foreigners were about half as likely as native-born Americans to be convicted of a crime and one-quarter less likely to be convicted of murder. Their overall arrest rate was 40 percent below that of people born in this country.

What this all shows is that Trump and Sessions are peddling myths. Central American refugees are not about to mount a mass assault on the border. And on the whole, far from posing a danger to public safety, the presence of undocumented foreigners enhances public safety. MS-13 is as representative of them as John Wayne Gacy is of Illinoisans.

This alleged menace is much like the monsters that small children fear. It's scary until you turn on the light and look under the bed.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[A Nobel Peace Prize for Trump?]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/07/a-nobel-peace-prize-for-trump/ 2018-05-07T04:01:00Z 2018-05-07T04:01:00Z Appearing before foreign service officers and other employees at the State Department on Wednesday, Donald Trump commended them for faithfully performing their most important task—applauding him.

"I must say that's more spirit than I've heard from the State Department in a long time, many years," he asserted. "We can say many years and maybe many decades." He wanted to impress on everyone that their show of devotion was more emphatic and more deserved than that accorded any president in memory.

Trump would have no way of knowing this even if he were a keen student of State Department history, which he is not, and he couldn't care less whether it's true. But that's not important. He never misses a chance to use other people to inflate his achievements and feed his ego.

Those in his presence are often enlisted, willingly or not, as disciples in the cult of personality he has tried to create. The only thing Trump enjoys more than boasting about himself is hearing others brag for him. He treats polite applause, such as what he heard at the State Department, as proof of reverence. But what he really encourages and appreciates is the most extravagant praise.

His personal physician, Harold Bornstein, was deployed in 2016 to attest that "his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary" and that he would "be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." The doctor, who now says that statement was dictated by Trump, obviously knew he had to go along.

White House physician Ronny Jackson was also willing to shower the boss with plaudits. In January, Jackson attested to the "excellent" health and "incredible cardiac fitness" of the exercise-averse junk food addict he had examined.

That spectacle was evidence of Trump's talent for reducing everyone around him to nonstop fawning. At a cabinet meeting in June, his subordinates took turns prostrating themselves. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus thanked the president for "the blessing you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people." Attorney General Jeff Sessions exulted, "It's an honor to be able to serve you."

No one has been more worshipful than Mike Pence, who said then, "The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who's keeping his word to the American people." Not serving the American people—serving Trump.

Many Republicans in Congress have adopted the same mindset. At a White House celebration for the tax bill, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said, "We are going to make this the greatest presidency we have seen not only in generations but maybe ever." House Speaker Paul Ryan agreed: "Something this profound could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership."

So it was not surprising to learn that 18 GOP House members have nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. "Since taking office, President Trump has worked tirelessly to apply maximum pressure on North Korea to end its illicit weapons programs," they said, thus "bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula."

Please. A guy who visited his golf properties more than 90 times in his first year in office has not "worked tirelessly" at anything. And it is only a fond hope that he will achieve anything lasting or important in his meeting with Kim Jong Un.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for fond hopes is something Republicans once opposed. When Barack Obama got it in 2009—to the surprise of everyone—the Nobel committee was widely criticized for getting ahead of events. Obama himself said he didn't deserve it. Even The Washington Post editorialized that it "almost makes you feel embarrassed for the honoree."

But it is impossible to embarrass Trump by extolling his accomplishments, real or imagined. No one can utter any tribute so preposterous that he has not said it or would not believe it.

Americans have generally regarded their presidents as fallible humans who deserve endless scrutiny and criticism. Extracting fulsome worship is supposed to be the province of medieval monarchs and communist dictators. But Trump sees the presidency mainly as a way for him to bask in glory.

What the president's sycophants obviously know is that plausibility is not necessary. On the contrary, the less believable the praise is the more welcome he will find it. What Trump wants to know is how far they will go in degrading themselves for his benefit.

The answer? If there is a limit, we haven't found it yet.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Iran Deal Is Still a Good Bargain]]> https://reason.com/2018/05/03/the-iran-deal-is-still-a-good-bargain/ 2018-05-03T04:01:00Z 2018-05-03T04:01:00Z The case against the nuclear deal with Iran is reminiscent of what Woody Allen once said: "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it's all over much too soon." The agreement, critics insist, is terrible and doesn't last long enough.

Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said on NPR Tuesday, "The problem is that the restrictions that the deal puts in place are automatically removed in a few years. This was the core problem of the deal from the beginning."

If it's not a good deal for the U.S. and Israel, shouldn't we prefer that it be over as quickly as possible? The weird logic of the opponents is that because parts of the accord will end too soon, we should end the whole thing even sooner—right now. Their implication is that all the flaws would be acceptable if only they would remain in effect until the end of time.

At his briefing Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood beside a giant screen filled with two words: "Iran lied." This assertion was a surprise on the order of finding snow in Siberia. The United States entered negotiations on Iran's nuclear program precisely because we didn't believe the claim that it had only peaceful purposes.

Had the Obama administration taken the Iranians to be paragons of honesty, it would not have held out for the most intrusive inspections regime ever imposed on a country. National security adviser Susan Rice said in 2015, "Our approach is distrust but verify."

The Israelis point out that the inspectors didn't unearth the files Netanyahu released. They didn't need to. "All of it was information that the International Atomic Energy Agency already had and has already commented on," Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNN.

"Even if the documents assembled by Israel are genuine, they do not appear to reveal that prohibited nuclear weapons research and design activities continued in an organized fashion beyond 2003," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told me.

Besides, the nuclear inspectors aren't supposed to spend their time finding out what the Tehran government did 15 years ago. They are supposed to ensure that Iran is complying with its current obligations, and they've found over and over that it is.

The important part of the session was what Netanyahu didn't say. He didn't say Iran has violated the agreement.

The White House responded to his slide show with a statement that the disclosures prove Iran "has a robust, clandestine nuclear program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people"—and then had to correct the statement to say Iran "had" such a program. Meaning: It no longer does. That would be thanks to the accord.

The deal put severe limits on Iran. It had to give up 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium, dismantle its plutonium reactor, and surrender 70 percent of its centrifuges. Inspectors can gain access to any site where they detect suspicious activity. The curbs on Iran are why Donald Trump's own defense secretary, James Mattis, has said it's in our national security interest to stay in the agreement.

The president, however, says it must be revised or he'll withdraw. But why would Iran agree to changes without new concessions on our part? And why would Iran see any point in amending an agreement with a government that feels free to renege on its established commitments?

Some restrictions on Iran's activities expire after 10 or 15 years. But if the administration would like to see those limits extended, the best hope is to abide by our obligations. Over time, Iran might grow more confident that it doesn't need nuclear weapons and agree to longer terms.

Trump's threats are likely to have the opposite effect. They tell the Iranian government it can't rely on multilateral agreements and had better have a good military deterrent against its enemies.

Trump accuses Barack Obama of sticking him with "a terrible deal." If the U.S. abandoned the deal, Iran would be free to evict the inspectors and resume the very activities that Netanyahu decried.

At that point, we would be presented with the same choice that the agreement served to avert: Allow Iran to proceed with its nuclear program or start a war to try to prevent it. Talk about a terrible deal.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Beef Lobby's Losing Fight Against Plant-Based 'Meat']]> https://reason.com/2018/04/26/the-beef-lobbys-losing-fight-against-pla/ 2018-04-26T04:01:00Z 2018-04-26T04:01:00Z When you visit a grocery, literal-mindedness is a handicap. Apple butter is actually not a dairy product. Grape-Nuts cereal omits grapes as well as nuts. Corn dogs don't need leashes.

The U.S. Cattlemen's Association, however, is appalled that new forms of protein are being sold under names such as Beyond Beef and Impossible Burger. Vegetarian and vegan substitutes for meat have gained a significant share of the market, partly because of health considerations and partly because of aversion to killing harmless animals for food. But the livestock group fears that consumers are being cruelly misled.

It wants the Department of Agriculture to stop not only the use of these brand names but any term suggesting that there is such a thing as "synthetic beef" or "vegan meat."

It complains that Beyond Meat offers what it calls "a plant-based burger that smells, tastes, looks and even feels like ground beef"—and, if you can imagine, "strategically merchandises its products adjacent to traditional meat in grocery stores." Yet, it notes, these foods are composed entirely of "non-meat ingredients such as 'Pea Protein Isolate,' 'Rice Flour' and 'Yeast Extract.'"

About 8 million Americans are vegetarians, nearly half of whom are also vegans. To anyone who prefers to avoid foods harvested from livestock, it is a convenience to find these humane alternatives next to the original versions. That's why soy and almond milk are stored in the dairy case, where most of the products come from cows.

Some people who grew up drinking milk and eating burgers want to enjoy similar flavors that are derived solely from plants. The more closely the substitutes resemble animal products in taste, texture, and appearance, the likelier they are to sell. The cattlemen's organization, however, waxes indignant that "Beyond Meat's website shows that its burger patties are virtually indistinguishable when sold next to traditional ground beef."

This industry is not the first to try to stifle plant-based competition. Last year, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin ("America's Dairyland") introduced a bipartisan bill titled the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act (acronym: DAIRY PRIDE). It would prevent makers of substitutes from using the term "milk." The supporters want the Food and Drug Administration to permit that label only for the "lacteal secretion" of a cow—yum!

The idea is that the government needs to intervene to prevent deception. Baldwin says that "imitations are marketed using the good name of dairy to sell their products." Actually, they use the bad name of dairy—its reliance on the relentless exploitation of sentient creatures—to sell their products.

The beef lobby deploys the same argument. Alternatives, it says, must "not be permitted to be labeled as 'beef,' which is widely understood by consumers to be the flesh of a bovine animal." A prohibition is needed "to eliminate the likelihood of confusion and to better inform consumers."
This is the sort of claim that is hard to make without laughing. Raise your hand if you have ever been at the customer service counter behind someone demanding a refund because his Vegan NOBEEF Strips contained no beef. What the beef and dairy producers want is for the government to protect them from competition.

People buy almond milk not because they think it contains cow's milk but because they know it doesn't. They order veggie burgers in the happy knowledge that no hooved beast was harmed to make them. If you go online in search of vegetarian or vegan foods, you will find such websites as "Fake Meats" and "The Vegetarian Butcher." They are not trying to fool anyone.

The beef and dairy producers have a bigger fear than imitations made from plants. The real long-term threat is milk and meat derived from animals—but grown from cells in a lab. That would allow humans to enjoy traditional foods without the need to feed, confine, kill, or clean up after cattle and other livestock.

"Clean meat" is not commercially viable just yet, but it's already being made. And the cattlemen's group wants the USDA to deny the term "beef" to anything not "harvested in the traditional manner"—that is, from slaughtered cows. Lab-grown seafood is also in the works.

The desires of consumers and the advance of science are converging in a way that is likely to remake our food system. The cattlemen can try to block this unwanted development. But they might as well try to milk a steer.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Expect Trump's North Korea Talks To Be Fruitless]]> https://reason.com/2018/04/23/expect-trumps-north-korea-talks-to-be-fr/ 2018-04-23T04:01:00Z 2018-04-23T04:01:00Z Donald Trump says that if his meeting with Kim Jong Un "is not fruitful," he will "respectfully leave the meeting." My advice would be to wear his walking shoes, because he will probably be taking a hike.

Anytime two enemies sit down to resolve their differences peacefully rather than through war, hopes rise that reason will prevail and compromise will emerge. On Twitter, Trump assured everyone, "Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!" It's tempting to think that his combination of insults, threats, and economic pressure has caused the North Koreans to see the error of their ways.

But negotiations are often a tedious exercise in killing time. Often one side is not willing to meet halfway. Often neither is.

These are likely to yield a meager harvest. North Korea began pursuing nuclear weapons some three decades ago. It agreed in 1994 to freeze its nuclear program but cheated on the deal. In 1999, it accepted a moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests, only to lift it in 2006.

Since then, it has conducted nuclear tests, and it is believed to have some 60 nuclear weapons. It has also tested a variety of missiles, including one capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Through all this time, efforts by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama failed to persuade Pyongyang to renounce nuclear weapons.

Why isn't Trump likely to succeed? The first reason is that nuclear weapons are the ultimate security guarantee. After the U.S. missile strike against Syrian chemical weapons facilities, super-hawk Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said Bashar Assad had learned the hard way that "weapons of mass destruction won't create a military advantage" and "Kim Jong Un might want to learn the easy way."

Kim undoubtedly reached a different conclusion—that the U.S. felt free to attack because Assad lacks nukes. The strike is bound to have reinforced his belief that he can't afford to give up his most potent arms. If Saddam Hussein had been able to acquire nuclear weapons, he would still be in power, not dead from a hangman's noose.

Kim has generously agreed not to rule out the complete denuclearization that the administration demands. But that's a long way from signing up for it. He may be willing to place some limits on his nuclear arsenal or his missile tests, but such a modest outcome would be hard for Trump to accept.

The second reason to expect failure is that Trump has indicated we can't be trusted. Under the Obama administration, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear infrastructure and submit to a strict inspections regime. U.N. inspectors have repeatedly affirmed that Iran is complying with the terms.

Yet Trump, his national security adviser, John Bolton, and his nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, all detest the accord. The president said in January that if the Iranian agreement isn't amended to his satisfaction—which is unlikely—he'll abandon it.

He has until May 12 to decide whether to continue waiving U.S. sanctions on Iran, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker predicted last month that he won't. The lesson for North Korea is that even if one president agrees to certain obligations, the next one may renege.

In any case, Trump will have to confront an unpleasant prospect in the talks with North Korea. Kim is not about to trade a cow for a bag of magic beans. Getting him to surrender something the North Koreans value so highly and have invested so much to achieve would require comparable concessions on our part.

What might those be? It wouldn't be enough for the U.S. to lift economic sanctions, normalize relations, and guarantee the security of the regime—all of which would be hard for the administration to swallow. The North Koreans say they won't demand that we withdraw all our troops from the South, but they could insist on such deep cuts that we might as well be gone.

Whatever we get from North Korea, we can expect to pay for in full. Trump may not be willing to bear that cost—or be able to persuade Republicans in Congress to go along. In negotiations such as this, nothing big comes without painful compromises.

We can all hope Washington will succeed in getting Pyongyang to denuclearize. But no one has ever gone broke betting against it.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump's Strange Appeasement of Putin]]> https://reason.com/2018/04/19/trumps-strange-appeasement-of-putin/ 2018-04-19T04:01:00Z 2018-04-19T04:01:00Z U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is used to being surrounded by diplomats representing murderous regimes, has found out the most dangerous place for her to be: between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

In a TV interview Sunday, she said the administration would shortly impose additional sanctions on Moscow for its role in Syria's chemical weapons program. The president was watching and "yelled at the television," reports The New York Times. The next day, the White House said it would not add to the sanctions because the president would "like to have a good relationship" with Russia. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow attributed the apparent reversal to Haley's "momentary confusion."

She could have done the country a service by resigning to protest the administration's vacillating on Russia and lying about her. Instead, she tartly rebuked Kudlow: "With all due respect, I don't get confused." Kudlow then admitted that the policy had changed overnight.

Trump takes pride in his self-image as a tough guy. When a protester disrupted a rally, he said, "I'd like to punch him in the face." After the Parkland shootings, he said he probably would have run in to confront the killer, even without a gun.

He's always putting foreign leaders in their place. He's slapped the Chinese with tariffs and said he would welcome a trade war. He's threatened North Korea with destruction. He's denounced the "brutal and corrupt Iranian regime."

Allies are not exempt from his ire. Trump has yelled at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, slammed British Prime Minister Theresa May on Twitter, and derided German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy as "insane." Mexico, South Korea, and Japan often get treated rudely.

But when it comes to Putin, Trump doesn't come across as fierce or demanding. He comes across as scared.

Why is not clear. It may or may not come to light that Trump and his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to win the 2016 election. A video of him consorting with prostitutes in Moscow may or may not emerge. But what we know already is that he practically grovels before Putin.

During the campaign, he said over and over that Putin had been "very nice" to him. He praised Putin as "a strong leader." Strangest of all, he complained about Hillary Clinton's stance on Russia: "She shouldn't be talking so tough."

This approach was at odds with Republican policy for the previous century. The GOP always regarded Russia as a dangerous rival, if not an enemy, that has to be dealt with firmly and skeptically.

Trump doesn't see it that way. He has resisted doing anything that might offend Putin. This isn't because Russia has pulled out of Crimea, abandoned Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, cut back its military, or tried to ease tensions with our NATO allies. In fact, Putin has done the opposite.

He even showed a video depicting a Russian missile attack on Florida. Not least important, the Russians interfered in the 2016 election—which Dick Cheney said could "be considered an act of war."

Shortly after taking office, Trump spilled secrets to the Russian ambassador. In a recent phone call, he congratulated Putin for being re-elected—even though he had been advised not to and even though the election was manifestly unfair.

He also invited Putin to the White House. And this call happened after Britain accused Russia of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter.

The president has felt compelled to go along with some measures proposed by his advisers in response to Russia's aggressive behavior. But Trump has been reluctant. Though he was persuaded to provide weapons to Ukraine, he wanted it kept secret.

He agreed to banish 60 Russian diplomats over the poisoning. But when France and Germany each expelled only four, reports The Washington Post, he was "furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia."

The docility Trump has so often shown suggests that he is desperate to avoid antagonizing the Russian leader. He doesn't seem to care that appeasement is unpopular. A new ABC News poll found that 74 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans favor stronger sanctions on Russia. Trump is also acting against the preferences of congressional Republicans—even though it means looking spineless.

He seems to know something that we don't know—and he doesn't want us to know. Maybe the Kremlin doesn't have material that could destroy Trump. But his administration looks like the world's longest hostage video.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Overdose Deaths Are the Product of Drug Prohibition]]> https://reason.com/2018/04/12/overdose-deaths-are-the-product-of-drug/ 2018-04-12T04:01:00Z 2018-04-12T04:01:00Z During Prohibition, drinkers never knew what they would get when they set out to slake their thirst. Bootleggers often sold products adulterated with industrial alcohol and other toxins. Some 10,000 people were fatally poisoned before America gave up this grand experiment in suppressing vice.

So it was a tragedy but not a total surprise when three deaths were reported in Illinois from synthetic marijuana laced with an ingredient (possibly rat poison) that caused severe bleeding. Nationally, in 2015, says the Drug Policy Alliance, "poison control centers received just under 10,000 calls reporting adverse reactions to synthetic cannabinoids, and emergency rooms received tens of thousands of patients."

People consume synthetic cannabis for the same reason people once consumed bathtub gin: Their drug of choice is illegal. Criminal organizations that cater to forbidden demands don't always make a fetish of quality control. After Prohibition was repealed, though, tipplers could buy from legal, regulated suppliers. They no longer had to worry about ingesting sudden death.

In nine states and the District of Columbia, pot users now enjoy the same protection. Recreational marijuana is allowed and subject to government regulation and the discipline of the market—ensuring purity through accountability. But in most places, Americans who want to get high have to take their chances with unsanctioned dealers who may be sorely lacking in moral scruples.

The bigger toll from modern drug prohibition, however, comes among opioid users. By making criminals of many people who are dependent on prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, the law exiles them to the black market. There, consumers may find legitimate FDA-approved medicines, but they may also buy counterfeit versions or heroin—which often carry far greater hazards.

The most urgent danger comes from fentanyl, an opioid at least 30 times more powerful than heroin that illicit producers often mix with other opioids. It plays a rapidly growing role in the epidemic of drug overdose deaths.

The number of deaths caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, says the National Center for Health Statistics, increased by 88 percent per year from 2013 through 2016. In 2016, these drugs killed more than 19,000 people.

Why would traffickers cut a dangerous drug (heroin, oxycodone) with an even more dangerous one? Fentanyl's low cost and high potency allow sellers to make more money. The iron law of prohibition stipulates that banning a substance encourages more powerful alternatives because they are more compact and thus easier to hide (boxes of pills versus bales of marijuana). The side effect is to greatly compound the dangers of drug use.

As if its role in opioids weren't bad enough, fentanyl has shown up in cocaine. Law enforcement agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts report a surge in this particular mixture, which is especially dangerous because cocaine users usually lack a tolerance for opioids.

Fentanyl was just the beginning. The latest additive is carfentanil, a compound 100 times more powerful than fentanyl that is used to tranquilize elephants. It's shown up in a street drug known as "gray death," which sells for much less than pharmaceutical opioids. Its advent is likely to boost the casualty count.

These side effects are an inevitable result of treating a vice, or a medical condition, as something to be punished. The simplest way to curb the epidemic would be to make it possible for those addicted to opioids to obtain and use them legally. Pharmacists don't mix up cocktails with sedatives meant for animals weighing 6 tons.

Short of some form of legalization, useful steps could be taken. Drug testing kits can detect the presence of fentanyl and other contaminants—but in many places, including Illinois, they are classified as illegal drug paraphernalia. The District of Columbia recently decided to grant an exemption letting syringe exchange programs screen drugs for the people they serve.

In some states, syringe exchange programs don't do that because there aren't any. Twenty-two states criminalize the mere possession of hypodermic needles.

It would help to have facilities where opioid users could inject drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could intervene to reverse overdoses—not to mention offer counseling and treatment referrals.

In 2016 alone, more Americans died of overdoses than were killed in the Vietnam War. Drug prohibition is justified as a vital protection against the ravages of abuse and addiction. But our graveyards are filling up with people it was supposed to save.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump Is a Low-Information Gasbag]]> https://reason.com/2018/04/09/trump-is-a-low-information-gasbag/ 2018-04-09T04:01:00Z 2018-04-09T04:01:00Z Presidents can tap a fount of information unlike any in the world. A corps of foreign service officers, multiple intelligence agencies, and thousands of federal bureaucrats exist to learn all they can about crucial matters and convey it upward. The White House can also call on professors, think tanks, advocacy groups, and corporations. If the president can't find the answer to a question, it's probably because no one can.

Being able to get all the best information gives the person occupying the Oval Office a unique perspective. How many times have you heard someone defend a president's decision by saying he knows many things we don't and must have sound reasons?

But that theory doesn't apply to Donald Trump. He is the rare president who doesn't know things we don't know. He has access to facts that others lack, but they are wasted on him.

He can't be bothered to read his top-secret daily intelligence briefing (or anything else) because he's too distracted by Fox & Friends—which is where he got the idea that a caravan of dangerous migrants was about to storm our southern border. Trying to load his brain with verified data is like trying to pound a wooden peg through a steel plate.

Trump, like every president, came into office facing a steep learning curve. "As he governs, he is realizing that the campaign talk doesn't fit neatly into governing and he needs a different approach, one that gets results," his friend and Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy said.

Early on, Trump occasionally exhibited an awareness of his limits. After he urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to force North Korea into line, Xi explained to him the relationship between the two countries. "After listening for 10 minutes," said Trump, "I realized it's not so easy." During the debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act, he marveled, "Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated."

But unlike his predecessors, he has seen no urgent need to climb the learning curve. Years ago, he developed his fundamental opinions without knowing much, and he maintains them the same way.

Trump does not treat his ignorance as a flaw to be fixed. He treats it as a precious jewel to be protected. Far from handicapping him, it furnishes a rich supply of half-baked excuses for following his whims, and he strives mightily to preserve it.

His penchant for nonsense, misinformation, and falsehoods is as strong as ever. Anytime he has to talk about the substance of policy, he makes it plain that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

He also doesn't care. In a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he insisted that the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. He later boasted, "I didn't even know. … I had no idea."

And why wouldn't Trump make things up to support his claims? He always got away with it before. When the boss (or father or host) is rich, opinionated, and overbearing, few people are going to make a habit of correcting him.

Trump, like every low-information gasbag, seizes stray bits of information—or invents them—to bolster what he believes. He has no interest in learning anything else.

Those who want to educate him do it at their peril. National security adviser H.R. McMaster got on his nerves by acting as though Trump had some use for information. Reported Politico, "The president at one point gestured toward the general in the midst of a lengthy briefing and said to others in the room, 'Look at this guy, he's so serious!'"

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after joining with other top officials in a determined but futile effort to make Trump understand the Iranian nuclear deal, concluded that his boss was a "moron." Like McMaster, he's gone.

It's become clear that Trump has decided he knows all he needs to know and can dispense with subordinates who challenge him. Trade adviser Peter Navarro captured the secret of pleasing the president when he explained that his job is to supply Trump with "the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition."

But even as he remains impervious to learning, Trump imagines that he's mastered everything he needs to know. "Some worried aides," reported The New York Times, "say privately that Mr. Trump does not understand the job the way he believes he does" and "fear he will become even less inclined to take advice."

No surprise there. Ignorance is not a bug in the Trump operating system. It's not even a feature. It is the operating system.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump, the Anti-Business President]]> https://reason.com/2018/04/05/trump-the-anti-business-president/ 2018-04-05T04:01:00Z 2018-04-05T04:01:00Z White House economist Peter Navarro, whose boss claimed credit when the stock market was rising, now thinks it should be ignored. After Monday's plunge, he said, "The market is reacting in a way which does not comport with the … unbelievable strength in President Trump's economy." Rest easy, Navarro advised. "The economy is as strong as an ox."

He should hope so, because its burdens are growing. Donald Trump's trade salvos against China moved Beijing to slap new tariffs on U.S. products. He has threatened to end NAFTA, which would wreck the supply chains of U.S. manufacturers and deprive farmers of vital markets. He's itching for a full-scale trade war, and he's likely to get it.

The tycoon who raised high hopes in the corporate sector has revealed a powerful anti-business streak. Get on his bad side and you may kiss your profits goodbye. He's a perpetual danger to every company in America.

Trump's Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to stop a merger of AT&T and Time Warner—owner of CNN, a Trump punching bag—surprising experts, most of whom see no threat to competition in the deal. He urges higher postal rates for Amazon because it has the same owner as The Washington Post, whose coverage often infuriates him.

The administration's effort to block travel from several predominantly Muslim countries brought a lawsuit from some 160 tech firms warning it would impose "substantial harm on U.S. companies, their employees, and the entire economy." His crackdown on undocumented immigrants disrupts agriculture because, as the American Farm Bureau Federation notes, "50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized."

Trump threatened retribution against Ford and General Motors to discourage production in Mexico. When Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned from Trump's manufacturing council to protest his comments on Charlottesville, the president took to Twitter to demand that he "LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

Republicans regularly depicted Barack Obama as a socialist. In 2010, the head of the Business Roundtable, an organization of corporate CEOs, accused him of "doing long-term damage to growth" by creating "an increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation."

Hostile? Obama never denounced an American company with anything close to the menace Trump routinely exhibits. Business somehow prospered during his presidency. Corporate profits grew by 57 percent, and the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index rose by 166 percent.

Obama drew criticism for imposing more regulations on business, boosting the top income tax rate, overhauling health insurance, and running big budget deficits. These changes raised doubts about the future that weighed on the economy.

Economists Steven Davis (University of Chicago), Scott Baker (Northwestern), and Nicholas Bloom (Stanford) attributed weak growth and job creation to "extreme uncertainty" that Obama helped to create through "harmful rhetorical attacks on business and 'millionaires,' failure to tackle entitlement reforms and fiscal imbalances, and political brinkmanship."

Hmm. Does that sound like anyone else? Trump has also attacked businesses, failed to curb entitlements, and, through tax cuts and spending bills, created ever-growing fiscal imbalances.

According to the index these economists devised, economic policy uncertainty was greater in Trump's first 13 months than in the same period under Obama—and bigger than the average for all of Obama's tenure. And things are only getting worse.

Obama took the view that the private economy needed extensive regulation to avert assorted perceived harms, which didn't make him popular among capitalists. But he didn't make a habit of bullying corporations to make particular business decisions or demonizing executives who disagreed with him. Trump's idea of a good economy is one in which every company does his bidding—because they are all afraid not to.

His unpredictability breeds anxiety, not confidence. He often sows confusion that makes bad policies even worse.

Davis cites the steel and aluminum tariffs, which Trump first said would apply to all countries, then revised to exempt Canada and Mexico, and then modified to spare several other countries—but only till May 1, when all bets are off. The haphazard approach "causes businesses to step back and wait," says Davis, "and creates a free-for-all among lobbyists, which creates its own uncertainty."

Trump was supposed to understand the needs of American businesses. But he thinks their main function is to serve his needs. Navarro has a point in comparing the economy to an ox, because the president is treating it like a beast of burden.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump Nominates a Toady for the Department of Veterans Affairs]]> https://reason.com/2018/04/02/for-the-department-of-veterans-affairs-a/ 2018-04-02T04:01:00Z 2018-04-02T04:01:00Z Donald Trump has many regrettable qualities, but seldom do they come together in such perfect concert as in his nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson for secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If you work for Trump, you have a choice: You can be a shameless toady, or you can try not to let the door hit you on your way out. Jackson, the White House physician, chose the former, and he not only got to keep his job; he got a promotion.

Jackson came to national attention in January, when he appeared in the White House press room to give a report on the president's physical exam. The briefing quickly turned into a festival of idolatry. Trump's health is "excellent," Jackson declared over and over, attesting that the president has "incredible cardiac fitness" and "incredible genes."

Had he eaten "a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old," Jackson gushed. "It's just the way God made him." Michelangelo's David can only gaze with envy on Trump's physical perfection.

The doctor's performance was reminiscent of one time when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin gave a speech. When he finished, applause erupted—and went on and on because everyone was afraid to stop clapping. Jackson had the haunted look and nervous manner of someone standing on a trapdoor above a pit of crocodiles. He was not about to risk the wrath of his boss.

Plenty of physicians took issue with his evaluation of Trump. CNN's Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, said to Jackson: "He is taking a cholesterol-lowering medication. He has evidence of heart disease. And he's borderline obese. Can you characterize that as excellent health?"

Dr. David Maron, director of preventive cardiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said he would "definitely" worry about a patient with Trump's LDL cholesterol reading. Asked by The New York Times whether the president is in perfect health, Maron replied, "God, no."

Jackson thus passed the first test for serving Trump—unabashed servility. He also checks other boxes on the president's list of ridiculous qualifications for vital posts.

Trump loves people with a certain look, and the square-jawed Texan has it. "He's like central casting—like a Hollywood star," he marveled. Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate partly because "he looks very good." But if appearance were a reliable guide to performance, Warren Harding would have been a great president, and Abraham Lincoln would be forgotten.

Infatuation with the military also figures into Trump's choices, and Jackson is a Navy admiral. Trump has given a number of key jobs to generals—Michael Flynn, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly. The only thing better than a White House physician who praises him to the heavens is one also bedecked in medals.

Trump has the attention span of a squirrel. It's entirely possible that he got rid of Secretary David Shulkin because he got bored seeing him in the same job for so long. Shaking up personnel and their assignments is something this president needs to hold his interest.

Shulkin reportedly ran afoul of people in the administration who favor privatization of VA medical care. But it's hard to imagine that Trump was motivated by deep convictions on such a dry topic.

Jackson is short on qualifications for running an agency that employs 360,000 people and operates 170 medical centers. The department has long been plagued by scandals and sloppy administration. It needs far greater management skills than Jackson would bring.

But Trump has no appetite for expertise. His Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, is a complete novice in the field. The top White House adviser on science has a degree in…political science.

Underlying all these considerations is the president's inability to grasp that his decisions have tangible consequences for actual human beings. He can't focus on the pressing needs of men and women whose military service brought them serious health problems that will require lifelong care.

Jackson is an able physician with a stellar record of service to his country. But his nomination to this office makes him look terribly inadequate, the hapless underling of an incompetent leader.

Serving this president means enabling his reckless conduct and sacrificing one's reputation. Jackson will find what so many others have learned: To be touched by Trump is to be stained forever.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[The Spending Bill Brings Us Closer to National Bankruptcy]]> https://reason.com/2018/03/29/the-spending-bill-brings-us-closer-to-na/ 2018-03-29T04:01:00Z 2018-03-29T04:01:00Z Someday, elderly Americans will reminisce about the days when the federal budget was in surplus, and their grandchildren will laugh in disbelief. "Sure—and you walked 5 miles in the snow to school, uphill both ways," they will reply.

It was not so long ago—2001, to be exact—but the achievement now seems like a relic of an ancient civilization whose strange customs we have long abandoned. We are about as likely to see another balanced budget as we are to see another dodo.

In the past 17 years, the federal government has spent about $15 trillion more than it has taken in. Publicly held federal debt equaled 31 percent of gross domestic product in 2001. Today, it's nearly 79 percent.

The blame is bipartisan. Deficits emerged and grew under George W. Bush. They eventually declined but persisted under Barack Obama. Because of the policies adopted by Donald Trump and the current Congress, budget deficits will only mushroom.

The crucial step in this development was the December enactment of a tax "reform" plan. Its main consequence was to add at least $1 trillion in deficits over the coming decade—on top of the $10 trillion that was already in the pipeline.

Republicans who voted for the proposal insist it will spur so much economic growth that it will pay for itself. Whether they believe that or don't care is open to debate, but the claim has no basis in reality.

A poll of 38 economists by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found only one who agreed the tax plan will have a substantial positive effect on economic growth. All agreed it will enlarge the debt.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that in 2028, the debt will amount to 93 percent of GDP. That means the real burden on future taxpayers will be triple what it was in 2001.

Now would be the ideal time to close the fiscal gap. The economy is growing, corporations are profitable, and unemployment is low—factors that boost revenue. If deficits are inevitable and possibly useful during recessions, they serve no good purpose in the ninth year of an expansion. Surpluses would serve a good purpose, by reducing the debt burden and providing room to adapt policy to changing circumstances.

The movement of the baby boom generation from the labor force to the retirement rolls means that outlays are fated to grow, thanks to Social Security and Medicare. Absent significant (and politically dangerous) cuts in benefits, revenues will have to grow just to keep up with obligations.

Instead, Congress and the president are deliberately reducing Washington's income while upping its outlays. It's the equivalent of buying a more expensive house and then quitting your job—a formula for bankruptcy.

We have gotten used to a tide of red ink flowing over the dam. But we don't see that anymore—not because the red ink has stopped flowing but because the dam has disintegrated. The conventions that once served to check budgetary excess are suddenly gone.

When Congress approved and Trump signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending measure last week, they agreed that they didn't know what was in the 2,232-page bill. But we don't need to know the actual contents to see that it represents a historic disaster, any more than we need to know how many gallons of water Hurricane Harvey dumped on Texas.

It was a bit incongruous to hear Trump demand that Congress give him a line-item veto. But then, Bush asked for one, and so did Obama. What all three have in common is an unwillingness to seriously attack the deficit. Asking for a line-item veto is a hollow gesture.

Because our leaders have chosen to go on spending without taxing Americans to cover the full costs, revenues will increasingly be used not to pay for actual programs but to service the debt. "Under current law, the federal government will spend more on interest than it does on Medicaid by 2021 and more than it does on defense by 2024," says the CRFB.

Once the tax bill passed, the argument for spending restraint collapsed. Why contain outlays if the federal debt is going to explode regardless? The spending bill merely confirms, loudly, that neither party has any use for fiscal responsibility.

Our leaders realize that eventually, someone will pay a price for this irresponsibility. And they know it won't be them.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Will the Democrats Blow It in 2020?]]> https://reason.com/2018/03/26/will-the-democrats-blow-it-in-2020/ 2018-03-26T04:01:00Z 2018-03-26T04:01:00Z Donald Trump has lousy approval ratings. House Republicans are bracing for carnage in November. And the economy stands a reasonable chance of stalling between now and Nov. 3, 2020. So the next presidential election should be a prime opportunity for Democrats.

But potholes abound on the road to the White House. Looking at the field of possible candidates and the direction the party is leaning, there are clear and plausible ways things could go wrong. The Democrats could nominate someone who will squander their advantages and lose. Or they could nominate someone who can win but will not make a good president (as the Republicans recently did). Neither is an outcome to welcome.

Consider the possible nominees. Joe Biden's statement that he would like to "beat the hell out of" Trump should disqualify him on grounds of temperament. It also isn't likely to endear him to the millions of voters who are weary of presidential belligerence.

He would also be 78 years old upon taking office. Biden has long dreamed of the presidency, but as the late sports writer Red Smith noted, "The place for old men to dream is beside the fire."

Age takes its toll, and anyone older than 70 has passed the sell date for such a consequential, consuming job as this one. Most big corporations require CEOs to step down at 65—and a president whose age proves a liability is a lot harder to remove than a CEO.

Among the senior citizens who should be ruled out are Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who would be 79 on Inauguration Day), California Gov. Jerry Brown (82), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (71).

Advanced age is not the only grounds for automatic disqualification. There are the celebrities and non-politicians, among them Oprah Winfrey, Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz, and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Any of them has as much business in the Oval Office as I have in the papacy.

In the past 14 months, we've come to learn the hazards of entrusting the office to someone who has no background in government and regards this inexperience as an asset. Oprah is superb at what she does, which has little in common with the presidency. You wouldn't hire a novice to run Starbucks. Why would you put one in charge of a nuclear arsenal?

None of the politicians considered a possible candidate, by contrast, has any obvious deal breakers. Among those who have spent enough time in office to demonstrate their competence: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kamala Harris of California, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and John Hickenlooper of Colorado.

The question is whether any or all will try to claim the mantle of Sanders and lead the party on a giddy march to the left. Some Democrats seem to think that if pandering to base voters is good enough for Republicans, it's good enough for them.

In reality, it would be unwise as policy and as politics. The litmus test may be Sanders' single-payer health plan, which would combine extravagance with uncertainty and disruption. It would also let Republicans change the subject from their unpopular efforts to dismantle Obamacare.

Democrats have done well in recent presidential races, winning the popular vote in six of the past seven elections. What all their nominees had in common was being close to the center of the party. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton were essentially pragmatists. Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan characterized Barack Obama as "a de facto moderate Republican"—a description Obama more or less accepted.

Those who make up the party's left wing may imagine that Americans are eager for their ambitious remedies for income inequality, corporate abuses, and racial injustice. But there is a reason that Republicans control 32 state legislatures and have 33 governors. The GOP is fervently hoping the Democratic Party will embark on a quest for ideological purity and zeal.

At present, Washington is short on leaders who offer maturity, problem-solving skills, willingness to compromise, realism about policy, and basic decency. If Democrats offer virtues like those in 2020, they are likely to win—and, equally important, to improve the nation's governance. That may not sound exciting, but excitement is the last thing we need.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[To Protect Mueller From Trump, Republican Silence May Be Shrewd]]> https://reason.com/2018/03/22/to-protect-mueller-from-trump-republican/ 2018-03-22T04:01:00Z 2018-03-22T04:01:00Z For congressional Republicans, having Donald Trump in the White House is like carrying around a vial of nitroglycerin. It can be useful in getting your way with others, but it puts you at perpetual risk of making a wrong move and being blown to pieces.

Most of these legislators came into this relationship against their own preferences, having favored someone else in the GOP primaries. Now that they are in it, they are constantly trying to figure out how to work with the president to advance their agenda while keeping him from setting off explosions.

As Trump escalates his attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, they are being accused of timidity for declining to move legislation to prevent Trump from firing him. "Paul Ryan needs to be stronger, and so does Mitch McConnell," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Rep. Jerry Nadler, (D-N.Y.), charged that by not acting, "they're almost encouraging" Trump to dismiss Mueller.

Passing this type of bill, argued an editorial in The Washington Post, "would send a clear, public message that congressional leaders have so far declined to convey: Firing Mr. Mueller would elicit a substantial real-world reaction that would severely harm the White House."

The critics sound like childless adults who think parents should be able make their kids behave perfectly. Keeping Trump under control is harder than it looks. Some of the most important Republicans on Capitol Hill may be holding off not because they want to see Mueller fired but because they don't.

When you throw a pass, the legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal noted, three things can happen—and two of them are bad. A push for this legislation would have even worse odds. Five things could happen, and only one is good.

First, a measure to protect Mueller could fail to get the votes to pass. Or it could pass without the two-thirds needed in both houses to override a veto. Either fate would give Trump the idea that he could purge the special counsel and get away with it.

The prospect of legislation could also prompt him to pre-empt it by firing Mueller immediately. The least likely outcome would be that the measure actually becomes law. If it did, Trump might dismiss him anyway and bet the courts would strike it down.

Some prominent GOP lawmakers have publicly warned Trump to leave Mueller alone. But even Republicans who have been willing to challenge the president are not lining up behind such legislation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who says that firing Mueller "would be the end of President Trump's presidency," is sponsoring a bill to protect the special counsel—but thinks it can wait. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina doesn't mind that his bill is collecting cobwebs, because there is no "imminent need." Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a vocal Trump opponent, has yet to buy in.

What would explain this paradox? The general line among Republican members is that the president should let the special counsel complete his task. Some may also be communicating to Trump privately that while they can tolerate his furious denunciations of Mueller, they would not tolerate his firing.

Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell, told The New York Times that if the Republican leader feels the need to let Trump know he shouldn't get rid of Mueller, "he probably communicates it directly and doesn't feel the need to pontificate in public."

The Republicans may also be playing a long game. By not passing a bill to constrain Trump, they convey their loyalty to GOP voters—82 percent of whom still view the president favorably. If these members are going to abandon him, they may calculate, better to wait until he makes a huge misstep. With any luck, he'll restrain himself and they won't have to.

Perhaps the inaction of congressional Republicans reflects animus toward the special counsel, blind allegiance, to Trump, or cowardice. But it's equally plausible that they are making a considered effort to avoid encouraging or provoking the president to fire Mueller.

In a hyper-partisan climate, it's easy to interpret every difference of opinion as proof of sordid motives. But if Republicans actually wanted Trump to get rid of Mueller, they would be saying so. Instead, they have shown a preference for letting him do his job. We shouldn't rule out the possibility that they have the right goal and know how to achieve it.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump the Wuss]]> https://reason.com/2018/03/19/trump-the-wuss/ 2018-03-19T04:01:00Z 2018-03-19T04:01:00Z There are all sorts of possible reasons to admire Donald Trump, but none more imaginative than one offered by a fan attending his Pennsylvania rally before Tuesday's congressional election. Trump's planned meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, said retiree Paul Ambrose, was the product of his unflinching toughness.

"To me, Obama was a butt-kissing liberal," he told a Washington Post reporter. "Trump is Teddy Roosevelt. He just might go in there and kick some ass. Kim's kind of (pooping) his pants because Trump's put the fear of God into him. Obama would have come and bowed."

Oh, would he now? If toughness is proved by threatening or taking military action—an assumption I don't share—Obama certainly qualifies. He began bombing the Islamic State. He escalated the war in Afghanistan. He used air power to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He was not bowing when he authorized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

North Korea? Obama repeatedly tightened sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its nuclear tests, and he ordered a secret effort to sabotage its missile tests through cyberwarfare. He refused to enter talks with North Korea because he saw no evidence it was willing to give up its nukes.

Teddy Roosevelt led a cavalry unit in the Spanish-American War and tried to get permission to fight in World War I—at age 58. Trump, given the chance to fight in Vietnam, got student deferments and a medical one—for bone spurs on his heels.

He has tweeted out threats against Kim, but when South Korean officials came to the White House to relay an invitation to meet with him, Trump melted like a chocolate bar on a hot sidewalk. Even some conservatives were aghast at Trump's eagerness to grant the North Koreans something his predecessors had withheld.

"What has Kim done to deserve this honor?" asked National Review. "Over the last nine months or so, he murdered Otto Warmbier, threatened Guam, and launched multiple missile tests, including two that flew over Japan."

All Trump got in return, wrote Stephen Hayes, editor of The Weekly Standard, was "a promise from a regime that doesn't keep promises, to do a thing it has avoided doing for decades."

Trump has confirmed over and over that he's a weakling masquerading as a tough guy. He pleaded with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto not to say publicly that Mexico would never pay for a border wall. He talked tough on China, but after meeting President Xi Jinping, he gushed, "We had a great chemistry—not good but great."

When members of Congress came to the White House after the Parkland massacre, Trump told them he favored raising the minimum age for buying rifles and shotguns, chiding a Republican senator for being "afraid of the NRA." But before long, the president dropped the idea, in meek deference to the gun lobby.

The most incriminating display is his treatment of Vladimir Putin, who U.S. intelligence agencies say has carried out a systematic campaign to subvert American democracy. What has Trump done in response? "I can't say that I've been explicitly directed to, quote, blunt or help stop" it, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers told a Senate committee.

After he finally raised this delicate matter with the Russian president, Trump reported: "He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times." He added, "And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."

Trump has often expressed doubt about Russian interference and rarely shown a desire to punish it. Obama placed economic penalties on Russia before leaving office. But after Congress passed a measure authorizing new sanctions against Russia, Trump refused to impose them.

His reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, which Prime Minister Theresa May furiously blamed on the Kremlin, was to waffle. He initially declined to blame the Russians until "we get the facts straight, if we agree." On Thursday, agreeing to impose sanctions, he offered the limpest possible rebuke: "A very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it."

Yet he somehow fools his followers. If you want to gauge how much of a backbone he has, remember when radio host Howard Stern asked on the air whether he could call his daughter Ivanka "a piece of ass." Replied Trump: "Yeah." In the long annals of weakness, nothing tops that.

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Steve Chapman https://reason.com/people/steve-chapman/ schapman@tribune.com <![CDATA[Trump's Wall Is Performance Art, Not Border Security]]> https://reason.com/2018/03/15/trumps-wall-is-performance-art-not-borde/ 2018-03-15T04:01:00Z 2018-03-15T04:01:00Z Donald Trump loves the ceremonial parts of his job, and his trip to California to inspect prototypes for a border wall was pure theater. He got to project toughness, point to something tangible, make big promises, and take credit—without actually accomplishing anything. He's not a president; he's a performance artist.

Of all his campaign pledges, none was more appealing to those at his rallies than the border wall, and none was more harebrained. The idea of creating an impermeable vacuum seal on our southern perimeter was appealing to opponents of immigration (legal or not) and drug smuggling. Forcing Mexico to pick up the tab made it irresistible.

Never mind that the idea had as much chance of materializing as a rainforest in the Sonoran Desert. Even Trump has hedged: "We don't need 2,000 (miles). We need 1,000, because we have natural barriers." But promising a 1,000-mile wall with hundreds of miles of holes might not have stoked raucous cheers from his crowds.

The cost would be enormous. An internal report by the Department of Homeland Security put the price at $21.6 billion. A study by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee calculated it at $70 billion, not counting maintenance. That's more than $200 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.—and zero dollars for every man, woman and child in Mexico.

Those who would be most directly affected show the least enthusiasm. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), whose district includes 800 miles of the Mexican border, says "a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security." The Texas Border Coalition, made up of mayors and other officials from the area, calls it a "false promise." For his Tuesday gala, Trump went to San Diego, whose City Council passed a resolution opposing the wall—which the Republican mayor declined to veto.

Trump claimed his wall would be "99 percent" effective, which is enough to make a lizard laugh. There is no reason to think endless slabs of concrete would stop illegal immigration or drug smuggling.

The Congressional Research Service looked at the experience of the "primary fence" built in San Diego and concluded that it, "by itself, did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border in San Diego." The main result, the CRS found, was that "the flow of illegal immigration … shifted to the more remote areas of the Arizona desert."

As for drugs, the Coast Guard says 95 percent of them arrive in container ships or other boats. Traffickers have discovered that the existing fence doesn't block underground tunnels, of which the Border Patrol has found hundreds.

Migrants have also found ways that don't involve dodging rattlesnakes. Two-thirds of the undocumented foreigners living here didn't sneak across the border; they came on temporary visas and forgot to leave. "So unless the wall is 35,000 feet high, it's not going to do much to stop those overstaying these visas," Robert Warren, a fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, told The New York Times.

It would, however, wreak havoc. Some landowners would be cut off from access to some of their own acreage, as well as water sources, and see their properties decline in value. They would also have to gaze upon the wall, in its full Soviet-bloc ugliness, every day.

Then there are the environmental harms. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that 93 wildlife species would be adversely affected. "This may well lead to the extinction of the jaguar, ocelot, cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and other species in the United States," it says.

All this assumes Trump's vision will come to pass. Hoover Institution economist John Cochrane notes that much of the barrier would have to be erected in California. That's the same state where the governor and Legislature have been pushing for a decade to build a high-speed train—"yet not one mile of the line yet exists." By contrast, Cochrane notes, "it took the Union Pacific four years to build the transcontinental railroad from Sacramento to Utah, over the Donner Pass, by hand."

But it doesn't matter for Trump. His wall promise rests on the same basis as a Ponzi scheme. It doesn't have to work in the end. It just has to work long enough to fleece the gullible.

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