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The State of the Campaign, August 2020

With the presidential election just three months away, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from friends and associates about how I assess the current state of the campaign.  I’m no political strategist or polling expert, but I think that the trends are pretty clear.

Although Trump’s free fall has slowed and maybe even stabilized, nearly all polls show Joe Biden with a substantial lead, both in the national vote and in critical battleground states.  Even Rasmussen, a notoriously pro-Trump poll has Biden up by 3 points. 

Trump supporters will be quick to dismiss most polling, pointing to his victory in 2016 despite polls showing him tailing Hillary.  But there is more than a little bit of mythology to such claims.  For one thing, Hilary actually did win the popular vote, pretty much in line with polling. Polls did largely miss Trump’s narrow victories in key battleground states that gave him his electoral college victory, but even here they weren’t that far off. The final RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Trump trailing but within the margin of error in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  Nothing suggests that polls are so far off the mark that they can be safely ignored this time around. 

It is also important to realize that Trump’s 2016 victory was narrower than his electoral vote count suggests.  Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a combined total of less than 80,000 votes, and without those three razor-thin victories, he would have lost the election. To win reelection, therefore, Trump must repeat his victories in each of those states, while also defending all the other states he won, or switch one or more Hilary states to his column.

Looking at the map it is hard to find Hilary 2016 states that look vulnerable to Trump in 2020; maybe, if you squint real hard, Minnesota.  On the other hand, a surprising number of Trump 2016 states appear to be in play.  In addition to the aforementioned Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Biden is at least competitive in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, with an outside shot at Georgia and Ohio. (Democrats will talk a good game about Texas like they do every year, but it remains out of reach).  That’s a lot of places for Trump to defend and a lot of paths to victory for Biden.

Obviously, we are a long way out and a lot can happen between now and election day. The debates, the ultimate progress of the pandemic, whether or not the economy recovers, continued racial unrest, and dozens of other things that are totally unknown today (2020 hasn’t been exactly predictable). 

Both candidates are tremendously flawed.  It is remarkably easy to imagine Biden doing or saying something stupid that antagonizes swing voters or raises further doubts about his competency.  He is already being pulled to the left in ways that undermine his “return to normalcy” message.  If he scares moderate voters who have soured on Trump, especially in the suburbs, things could unravel quickly.

And Trump is, well, Trump.  There is no indication that he has either the desire or the discipline to expand his appeal outside his base.  He would love to turn the election into a choice between him and Biden (or Biden as defined by Trump), but increasingly the election seems more like a referendum on Trump.  That’s not good news for the president.

In the next few weeks I will offer my thoughts on the merits of both candidates from a policy perspective.  But strictly from a horse race point of view, one has to say that things are trending solidly in Biden’s direction.

COVID Thoughts

I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist, so I’ve refrained from getting involved in Coronavirus debates that I’m clearly not qualified to comment on.  Moreover, when it comes to the current “keep it closed” vs “open it up” debate, I genuinely have mixed feelings.  I don’t think the case is as iron clad as either side would have you believe.

However, I do have a few thoughts:

  1. First, condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. I have friends who have lost family members, and other friends working on the front lines of this pandemic.  There is no minimizing their pain.
  2. Can we stop with the conspiracy theories? The virus is real and at least somewhat deadly. It is not just like the flu. While there are undoubtedly errors in reporting, the deep state is not plotting to inflate case numbers.  In fact, the number of deaths from COVID-19 are more likely to be underestimated than overstated. The mortality rate may turn out to be relatively low, because of a more widespread infection rate, but that same high infection rate means the total number of deaths will be high even if the infection mortality rate is low.  Comparisons to other causes of death are usually apples to oranges, for example comparing flu deaths over an entire year to COVID death’s in one month.
  3. The need to “flatten the cure’ in order to prevent overwhelming our health care system was real and vital. As it was, the health care system did not have the capacity to deal with the pandemic in many hot spots. (We can debate reasons for this at a later time).  The cost to healthcare workers has been unimaginable.  Had caseloads continued to spike, the result would have been truly catastrophic.
  4. Shutting everything down as hard as we did might not have been the optimal strategy for fighting the virus. But given how badly we underestimated the original threat and how much time we squandered, our lack of testing capability, and how littler information we really had, a blunt object like “stay at home” might have been the only realistic option we had under the circumstances.  We no longer had time for fine tuning.  There is plenty of blame to go around for that: China, the government healthcare bureaucracy, the media, politicians from both parties at all levels of government, and the Trump administration. We blew it and we are paying the price for that.
  5. And our government, especially the federal government, continues to fail. We still lack the testing capacity necessary to truly estimate risk in different areas.  There also continue to be shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  All of this makes any effort to relax stay at home orders a roll of the dice.
  6. Some governors and mayors clearly went overboard. Mowing your own lawn or buying plant seeds were not really major risk factors.  Banning drive-in church services or shutting gun stores was gratuitous.  In overreacting, these officials undermined support for more legitimate stay-home demands.
  7. Many “open it up” proponents overestimate the speed at which we can bounce back economically. And, they overstate the number of deaths caused by the shut-down and the shut-down induced recession, especially in the short-term.  Still, years of research do show that prolonged economic downturns do cause deaths.  It is not “lives vs. the economy;” it is” lives vs lives.”  The question, therefore, becomes one of balancing risks.  That is something we don’t like to talk about, but we do all the time.  We don’t ban cars because of traffic fatalities.   However, we also don’t allow you to drive 100 mph through a school zone.
  8. There does seem to be gradual morphing of the rationale for shutting down, from “don’t overwhelm the health care system” to “no one should die from COVID-19.” That would be a shift with profound implications. Are we really willing to stay shut for a year or two until there’s a vaccine?  And what if a vaccine is never developed?
  9. On the other side, what are “open it up” advocates prepared for what might happen if we open to fast or too soon and the course of the infection resumes its pre-shutdown geometrical rise? Is there any level of deaths that would be too high for them?  What happens if we go back to levels that overwhelm the health care system?  Even the strictest interpretation of libertarian theory suggests that my right to swing my fist ends at your nose. With a highly contagious virus, we are all fist swingers.
  10. Still, we are going to open. This is partially because there are limits to how much economic damage we can sustain.  But equally important, there is a growing “shut down fatigue.”  We are just not made to be able to handle prolonged isolation. As the weather improves, people are going to become increasingly restive.   Ultimately, stay at home orders can only last as long as people are willing to comply.  That consensus was very strong early on.  It is becoming less so.  The question therefore should be how best to open.  That is a question that could benefit from a bit more good faith discussion and tolerance.  Those on the other side of these questions are not either trying to kill people or ruin the country.  We are all stumbling in the dark, trying to find the best solution (not the perfect) to a bad and unprecedented situation.

 

Libertarianism Needs to Change

No, not in our basic beliefs and principles. The concepts of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace should remain the core of what we are.  Those ideas, after all, are essential to human flourishing.  If widely implemented they would make for a better and more prosperous world, one in which most people thrive.

But we do need to change how we express, prioritize, and apply those principles.

In part, this is simple pragmatism.  If we hope to achieve political, cultural, or societal change we will need to reach a much larger audience, an audience that is not predisposed to agree with us.  Libertarianism has been – and remains today – overwhelmingly a movement of middle-class white men.  But a majority of our larger audience, the audience we must reach to be effective, is made up of women and people of color.  White men currently make up just 31  percent of the U.S. population.  By 2050, that will be closer to 20 percent.  There is no way to become an effective political or social movement without attracting women and people of color.

It is not surprising that as a white male middle-class movement, we have tended to stress those issues of importance to middle-class white men, things like tax cuts, deregulation, gun rights, and so forth.  Of course, those issues remain important.  But too often the privilege we enjoy blinds us to other issues that have a higher priority to women, the poor, or people of color. Thus, we prioritize a change in marginal tax rates over police misconduct.  We treat the use of tax dollars for welfare as worse than the use of tax dollars to hold immigrant children in cages.

It is this prioritization of issues that are important to us – or to people like us – that makes it possible for some libertarians to say idiotic things like “Americans were freer in the 1800s than we are today.”   African Americans, women, and LGBTQ Americans, among many others would strongly disagree.

This is obviously not to say that high taxes or welfare programs are good.  I’ve spent my career arguing that most government programs are counterproductive, that high taxes reduce economic growth and leave us all poorer, and that social welfare programs fail to lift people out of poverty.  But on the vast scale of bad, even immoral, public policy, we should be careful in weighting our priorities.

Second, we should recognize how our policy preferences impact less advantaged groups, or at least how they will perceive that impact.  Property rights are clearly an important concern, as is the freedom of association, and free speech.  We should always be wary of government infringement of those rights.  But when we use those concerns to oppose civil rights laws or champion speech by neo-Nazis, we are missing the forest for the trees.

And speaking of speech, we should understand that words matter.  We should show empathy not contempt for those in need.  We should explain how government intervention has contributed to their marginalization, not criticize them for the situation in which they find themselves.  We should understand that the playing field is not level.  The poor and minorities don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else.  We should reflect this in how we talk about issues.

Along those lines, we should understand that just because government should not censor speech does not mean that we should therefore welcome racist, misogynistic, or other hateful speech.  Yes, we want a big tent, but there are limits to the size of that tent.  Racists, incels, and xenophobes have no legitimate place in our movement.

Perhaps we are so accustomed to being outside the political mainstream that we take a perverse pride in sticking it to that mainstream.  Or maybe, as a political minority, we instinctively feel solidarity with other political minorities.  But all non-mainstream political movements are not created equal.  We are not standing up for free speech or daringly transgressing social norms when we allow those who hate to use our movement and our platforms.   We can oppose government policing of speech, while also policing ourselves.

There’s a practical point to this, of course.  As my friend Adam Bates has pointed out, if you invite both Nazis and African Americans into your movement, you are not going to have very many African Americans.  But more important is the moral point: Our goal as libertarians should not be winning esoteric academic debates but in creating a society in which every human being can flourish.  That is not a society that openly tolerates racism and other forms of hatred.

I became – and remain – a libertarian because I believe in the inherent equal worth of every person.  Liberty is important, not as an abstract concept, but because it is key to the conditions that enable people to be all that they can be – to flourish.   But far too often we fail to speak to that ideal.  If we hope to become a successful political movement – if we truly want to change the world — rather than maintain an ivory tower status quo or ideological purity – we need to do so more often.

And, more importantly, we should do so because doing so is a measure of our own decency and humanity.

The Impeachment Kerfuffle (Updated 1/31/20)

In Neal Stephenson’s otherwise unimpressive new novel, he posits one very interesting idea – a world so divided by social media feeds that Americans cannot even agree on whether Moab, Utah has been nuked.   Judging by my various feeds, we are in much the same position regarding President Trump, his actions vis a vis Ukraine, and the latest push for impeachment.

In what is likely a forlorn hope that  we can have a civil discussion across this divide, let me throw out a few random thoughts.   Much of this is my interpretation of the facts, but hopefully we can at least all agree on the facts themselves.

First, recognize that two unrelated things can be true at the same time.  Thus A) President Trump’s accusers can be partisan, hypocritical, and generally sleazy, and B) President Trump could be guilty of those accusations.  Likewise, A) Donald Trump could be dishonest, reactionary, and a bigot, but B) not guilty of specific accusations.  Debate the merits of the charges, not the merits of the messengers on either side.

Let’s look at those charges:

The CloudStrike, Hillary’s-emails-are-hidden-in-the-Ukraine, Russians-didn’t-really-hack-the-DNC stuff is pure tinfoil hat fodder that originated with Russia, spread to 4Chan, and then to various corners of the conspiracysphere.   Still there is an ongoing investigation of the Russia investigation’s origins being conducted by the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut.  It might be silly and a waste of time and money, but it is entirely appropriate for the president to ask Ukraine to cooperate with that probe.

This is very different from the president’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens. Let us grant that it is obvious that Burisma was hiring Hunter Biden to gain influence and access with the U.S. government.  This is both sleazy and common.  It is also most likely perfectly legal.  Indeed, the Ukrainian investigation of Burisma (more on this below) was targeting the oligarch who owned the company, and had nothing to do with Hunter Biden.   Hunter Biden’s involvement in China is equally sleazy and equally legal.  Perhaps we should ban the relatives of U.S. politicians from being involved in foreign business ventures, but we haven’t so far (see, Trump, Ivanka and Trump, Donald, Jr).

Hunter’s sleaziness does reflect badly on his father, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask Joe Biden why he didn’t advise his son to steer clear of such foreign entanglements.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that Joe Biden personally did anything illegal.  Yes, he helped force out a Ukrainian prosecutor, who had, at one time, been involved in investigating the owner of Burisma.   But Biden was hardly freelancing or directing U.S. policy toward Ukraine, despite the self-inflation shown in that video of his talking about his role.  Removal of that prosecutor was official U.S, policy, as well as the policy of all our major allies, the EU, the IMF, Ukrainian anti-corruption campaigners, and more.  It was a priority of the U.S. State Department.  Biden was simply the messenger.  And the prosecutor was forced out because he was corrupt, and was refusing to pursue efforts against the oligarchs.  In fact, the Burisma investigation had already been shut down, one of many that the prosecutor deep-sixed to protect his powerful friends.  Forcing him out was a good thing.

If, however, President Trump actually believed there was illegality involved in Biden’s actions (either Biden), the correct response would have been for the Justice Department to open a U.S. investigation.   It was not to urge Ukraine to investigate a political opponent.  And, under no conceivable circumstances, was it to proper to threaten to withhold vital U.S. assistance (or a diplomatically important meeting with the president) in order to pressure the Ukrainians to do so.

And that is clearly what Trump did.  The whistle-blower or blowers are irrelevant at this point.  Simply read the transcription of the call (it is not actually a full transcript) and the emails.  True, Trump never says “Here is my quid, now about your quo.”  But anyone who ever watched an episode of the Sopranos knows that’s not how it’s done.  “Mighty fine country you have here, be a shame if something happened to it.  Oh, by the way…”

Nor should we buy the excuse that this was just about “fighting corruption.”  President Trump has been more than happy to deal with some of the most corrupt regimes on earth: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Egypt.   Can anyone think of any other time that Trump was concerned about corruption to this degree?

I can see no  plausible argument that President Trump’s actions were not an abuse of power.

Which brings us to the question of impeachment.  I’m torn.  I believe that Trump’s actions clearly rise to the level of an impeachable offense.  In fact, this sort of abuse of power seems like exactly the sort of offense that the Founders intended impeachment to rectify.  And, in the end, impeachment is a political action, not a judicial one.  An argument can be made that we don’t use impeachment as a tool of accountability often enough.  https://www.cato.org/publications/white-paper/indispensable-remedy-broad-scope-constitutions-impeachment-power

If Congress doesn’t act in this case, are we simply normalizing this kind of behavior.  Is there anything, short of oral sex, that Donald Trump — or any president — can do that would be worthy of impeachment?  (Yes, I know that the actual charges against Bill Clinton involved perjury and obstruction, but still…)

On the other hand, because the House has sufficient reason to impeach does not mean that it should impeach.  Given the almost certainty that the impeachment vote will fall almost exclusively along partisan lines, and that the Senate is almost certain to acquit along equally partisan lines, there is an enormous risk of further dividing and polarizing the country.  Moreover, Trump supporters are correct to point out that some Democrats have sought impeachment since the day Trump was elected, and pursued one rationale after another, with greater and lesser validity.  That whiff of vindictiveness can taint this case.

Most importantly, there is an election just one year away.  The American people will go to the polls.  Is that a more appropriate time to hold President Trump, and all the other players in this drama, accountable?

Feel free to debate the merits of my arguments, but please do so civilly.  Name-calling will get your comments removed.  And (he said without any real hope for success), let’s try to stick to the facts.

UPDATE 1/31/20:   I wrote the above back in October, before all the House hearings and the Senate “trial.”  Fine details aside, I think it still holds up extraordinarily well.  If anything, the various witnesses, official and unofficial (That’s you John Bolton!) have made it absolutely clear that Trump did it.  I don’t see how anyone can argue with a straight face that President Trump did not use a variety of pressure points – aid, meetings, etc – to try to force Ukraine to announce politically useful investigations of the CloudStrike conspiracy theory and Hunter Biden.  My thoughts on those investigations are encapsulated above.

That case is made even without additional witnesses.  I think the Senate should call witnesses like Bolton, but those witnesses are not necessary to determine what happened.  He did it.

Whether or not the president should be removed from office and, as Republicans  pointed out, removed from this fall’s ballot just 9 months before an election is a much tougher call.  In general, I would say there should be a high bar to remove a president so close to an election.  Senators who say that Trump is guilty but that the offense doesn’t rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and, therefore, this should be left to voters, are making a reasonable case.

On the other hand, I worry that an acquitted Trump will take the verdict as vindication and assume there are no constraints on him now.  After all, we can’t easily go back to the impeachment well a second time.  Beyond, Trump there are important concerns about the precedents being set for future presidents.  The Dershowitz argument is particularly frightening.

For me, it’s a close call.

Let me add one last thought.  Given the deep divisions in this country today, this was always going to be a partisan impeachment.  One side was calling for Trump’s impeachment before he took the oath of office.  The other side wouldn’t impeach him if he shot someone during the State of the Union Address.  However, Democrats have unnecessarily highlighted the partisanship.  Rushing the impeachment vote then holding the resolution for weeks, choosing highly partisan managers rather than someone like Justin Amash, handing out souvenir pins, and inflammatory language, may have roused the Democratic base, but likely didn’t play well with the Senate (or public).  It probably didn’t change a single vote, but it was an illustration of how the Democrats can still lose this November.

 

California Here I Come (Policy-wise)

When most people think of California, they think of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills.  Yet, California is actually tied with Louisiana for the nation’s highest poverty rate.  Clearly, the “California model” is failing to address the needs of all the Golden State’s residents.

My most recent book, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, examined the causes and solutions for poverty on a national scale, pointing to government policies from criminal justice to education to over regulation that trap people in poverty.  Now, I’m going to look specifically at California’s failure to help its poorest citizens.

The Cato Institute is launching a Project on Poverty and Inequality in California.  I will be directing this two-year project that will look at ways in which California government policies have burdened those most in need, and will suggest specific reforms designed to help poor Californians become part of the economic mainstream.  An analysis of what works and what doesn’t in California will provide important information to California policy makers, as well as valuable insights for other states as they work to address similar problems.

The Project on Poverty and Inequality in California will investigate the impact that the state’s policies have had in five critical areas:

  • Criminal Justice: Over-criminalization, sentencing disparities, treatment of ex-offenders, and pervasive bias against People of Color are problems for all levels of society, but have a disproportionate impact on the poor.  Despite recent progress, California has lagged behind many other states in reforming its policing and criminal justice system.
  • Education: While California has some of the highest per-student spending in the nation, student performance continues to lag behind other states.  Despite this, the state rigidly restricts charter schools and blocks other forms of school choice.
  • Housing: The poor spend a disproportionate share of their income on housing. California has some of the nation’s most costly and restrictive zoning and land use laws, which further drive up the cost of housing.
  • Welfare reform: Asset tests for welfare programs encourage consumption and discourage savings. California eligibility requirements for a variety of welfare programs need to be examined in light of the incentives they create.
  • Regressive regulation: Regulatory barriers to getting a job or starting a business can block people from fully participating in the economy. Occupational licensing, zoning, environmental regulation, and high minimum wage requirements can inhibit small business development and growth and leave those wanting to work locked out of the labor force.

As part of this project, I will be undertaking extensive visits to California to meet with stakeholders, including state-level elected officials, interest groups, and individuals who are affected by current policy.   My first trip will be to Sacramento for a community roundtable discussion on June 26. If you would like to attend, you can register here:  https://register.cato.org/stakeholder-roundtable-sacramento-2019.

I am very excited at this opportunity to continue providing positive solutions to one of the most important problems of our time.

 

 

Advance Praise for my New Book, The Inclusive Economy

My new book, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, will be out late this year. But reviewers, from both the Left and Right are already praising it. A sampling:

I have a bookshelf full of treatises about the history and purposes of welfare programs, most written by prominent experts on the right and left. But the Tanner volume could be the most thorough, scholarly, and balanced in exploring the major explanations for poverty. In addition, after lowering expectations, Tanner delivers a reasonable set of recommendations for policies that could reduce poverty including reforms of the justice system; increasing educational choice for parents; reducing the cost of housing; helping the poor gain access to banking, saving, borrowing and investing; reducing regulations that hold back the poor; and increasing economic growth to give the poor an expanded opportunity to get ahead. It will be a long time before we get another volume on poverty that delivers the breadth of understanding and solutions found in this superb volume.

—Ron Haskins, Co-Director, Center on Children and Families, Cabot Family Chair in Economic Studies, Brookings Institution

——-

Michael Tanner has produced an extraordinarily thoughtful and comprehensive look at the history, causes, and debates about poverty. His ultimate goal, to eradicate rather than alleviate poverty, will be widely shared, but his analysis and proposals will clearly challenge the beliefs of conservatives, libertarians, and progressives alike.

—Andrew Stern, President Emeritus, Service Employees International Union (SEIU)

——-

Tanner’s excellent new book bypasses the left-right divide to take the problem of poverty seriously. He shows that persistent poverty in the United States is largely structural. Welfare programs can help keep the poor from starving, but they have not and cannot solve the problem because they do not change the unfair structures which prevent the poor from escaping poverty. It’s time we stop stacking the deck against the most vulnerable members of society.

—Jason Brennan, Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, Georgetown University

——

Michael Tanner shows us why too much government regulation and too little economic freedom are precisely the structural conditions that keep so many Americans trapped in poverty. This is a balanced, sober, and thoughtful examination of the causes of poverty in the United States, and a hopeful and practical roadmap for how to make things better.

—Matt Zwolinski, Director, University of San Diego Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy

And finally, here I am on Monte Malin’s terrific podcast, talking about The Inclusive Economy and a libertarian approach to fighting poverty. (BTW, if you don’t follow Monte’s podcast, you should. Non-political, but fascinating interviews).

https://soimportant.podbean.com/e/michael-tanner-on-fighting-poverty/

On Immigration

Given the current debate, let me be upfront about my opinion on immigration. I am very close to being the “open borders supporter” people accuse me of being. I think there should be an orderly process for entry, and that we should be able to bar those with obvious criminal or terrorist backgrounds. Beyond that, if someone wants to come to this country, I say let them come. It will make us a richer, more entrepreneurial, and more vibrant country.

I am a libertarian because I believe in the equal intrinsic value of every human being. Basic human rights do not come from government and are not arbitrarily circumscribed by lines on a map. That applies equally to people with brown skin or who don’t speak English.

Despite what we tell ourselves on both sides of this debate, the United States is not a particularly generous nation when it comes to immigrants. The US only takes less than a third of one percent of our population in immigrants per year. That’s far fewer, as a proportion of our population, than most other rich countries such as Australia, Sweden, or Canada. We can easily accommodate more.

Yes, increased immigration would undoubtedly mean more people collecting government benefits, although immigrants tend to use most social welfare programs at a lower rate than native-born Americans. (https://www.cato.org/publications/immigration-research-policy-brief/immigration-welfare-state-immigrant-native-use-rates). But that’s an argument for walling off the welfare state – not the country. (https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/building-wall-around-welfare-state-instead-country.

Besides, the cost of immigrant welfare benefits would be more than offset by increased economic growth. After all, economic growth depends on the growth and productivity of the labor force. An increase in immigration would help offset an ongoing decline in U.S. labor force participation. These benefits are especially large for highly skilled immigrants. Trained on another country’s dime, such immigrants are about the closest thing economically to a free lunch for Americans.

Immigrants positively impact both the demand and supply sides of the economic equation. Obviously, immigrants are consumers, providing additional demand for goods and services in the areas where they reside. At the same time, immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start a business each month as native-born Americans, and about 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children.

What about concerns over crime and gangs like MS-13? One crime victim is one too many. And obviously there are criminals among immigrants just like there are among native born Americans. But the fact is that immigrants (both legal and illegal) are less likely to commit crimes or be arrested than non-immigrants. (https://www.cato.org/publications/immigration-reform-bulletin/criminal-immigrants-their-numbers-demographics-countries) And, resources expensed to track down peaceful, law-abiding immigrants are resources not available to arrest those MS-13 gangsters.

Immigration restrictionists express concern that increased immigration would mean lower wages for native-born Americans. At first glance, this seems obvious. With fewer workers available, employers would have to raise wages in order to convince native-born Americans to take less desirable jobs. It is in fact true that in some cases, immigrants will substitute for low-skilled native-born workers, leading to lower wages or job loss.

But for the most part, immigrants have different skills and job preferences than native-born workers, and they typically take jobs at the high end and low end of the skill spectrum. For instance, most Americans are simply unwilling to become seasonal agricultural migrants, doing menial work for relatively little pay. Such jobs simply would not exist without immigrants to fill them, and we would all be worse off as a result.

In terms of wages, the vast majority of immigrants do not directly compete with native-born workers but should be considered complementary, making American workers more productive. Higher productivity means higher wages for native-born workers.

Even if immigration might sometimes temporarily reduce wages, it seems odd for conservatives or libertarians at least to argue that it is the job of government to keep wages artificially high. The same argument, after all, is often made by those arguing in favor of an increased minimum wage or protectionist trade barriers, both of which free market supporters oppose.

Then again, it is clear that immigration restrictionists are far from consistent supporters of free markets. Isn’t the free flow of workers (along with goods and capital) a basic tenet of free market capitalism?

Opponents of immigration reform are on more consistent ground when they point out that illegal immigrants have, by definition, broken our laws. At a time when the president seems to feel that the law doesn’t apply to him, regard for the “rule of law” is more important than ever. But not all violations of the law are equal. Few would advocate jailing you because you tore that little tag off your mattress. Any immigration opponents ever speed? Under report income on your taxes? Smoke pot?

Moreover, if it is just “illegal” immigration that you oppose, then why do you back President Trump’s call for cutting *legal* immigration by 40 percent? (https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/30/trump-legal-immigration-republicans-378041). Shouldn’t opponents of *illegal* immigration want to make *legal* immigration easier? If not, let’s dispense with the fiction that it’s the illegality that bothers you.

Finally, I wonder how you can have a restrictionist immigration policy while respecting civil liberties. Do we want a land of informers, where neighbors call ICE on neighbors they think might be undocumented? Do we want police pulling over people on a pretext to check their papers? Should dark skin or speaking Spanish make you the constant subject of suspicion?

I have always believed that the zero population growth people were dead wrong. Humans are a valuable resource. Those willing to risk a dangerous trip across the desert or in the hold of a container ship, to arrive in a new land, penniless, without even being able to speak the language, but with a determination to achieve a better life for them and their children, are exactly the sort of resource we could use more of.

One last point, I’m strictly talking immigration here, not citizenship. I believe in a pathway to citizenship- a lengthy and somewhat arduous one – but that is an entirely different debate. It is perfectly reasonable to support open immigration while opposing citizenship for them.

Obviously not everyone will agree with me, including friends and people I respect. So, if you support the president’s approach to immigration, I would love to know why. In particular, if you share my belief in free markets, limited government, and individual liberty, how do you square those beliefs with immigration restrictionism?

The floor is open.

Coming Soon (or at least eventually) The Inclusive Economy: Bringing Wealth to America’s Poor

My latest book has finally been accepted and has disappeared into the publication process – next stop copyediting. It has been more than two years in the works, and I really do see it as the most important publication of my career.

The Inclusive Economy: Bringing Wealth to America’s Poor looks at the reasons for poverty in America and offers a detailed agenda for increasing wealth, incomes, and opportunity for the neediest Americans. Notably, I challenge the conventional wisdom of both the Right and Left that underlies much of our current debate over poverty and welfare policy. I suggest that conservative critiques of a “culture of poverty” fail to account for the structural circumstances in which the poor live, especially racism, gender discrimination, and economic dislocation. However, I also criticizes liberal calls for fighting poverty through greater redistribution of wealth or new government programs.

Ultimately, I conclude that too much of contemporary anti-poverty policy focuses on making poverty less miserable, and not enough on helping people get out of poverty and becoming self-sufficient. Instead of another sterile debate over whether this program should be increased by $X billion or that program should be cut by $Y billion, I call for an end to government policies that push people into poverty. In doing so, I offer a detailed roadmap to a new anti-poverty agenda that includes criminal justice reform; greater educational freedom, including school choice; making housing more affordable through the elimination of zoning and land use regulations, banking reform, and more inclusive economic growth. These policies reject the paternalism of both Left and Right, instead empowering poor people and allowing them to take greater control of their own lives.

In attempting to marry social justice with limited government, I offer something guaranteed to displease pretty much everybody. However, I also believe that this book provides an agenda for individual empowerment that should draw support across ideological and partisan lines. We’ll see.

The Inclusive Economy has a Dec 4 catalogue date, but copies should be available well before that.

A Serious Question for Proponents of Gun Control

I had hoped that there might be a decent mourning interval after the horror in Las Vegas before we returned to contentious political debates. But, alas, that is not to be. The natural instinct after tragedies is a desire to “do something.” And, the “something” for a great many people in this case is gun control. So, reluctantly, a few thoughts on the issue.

Though my natural instincts rebel against any expansion of government power, I am not an absolutist on Second Amendment rights. I can be convinced to support reasonable measures to protect the public, while also protecting the rights of gun owners. But once we get past the emotion of “do something,” I ask my liberal friends on here, what exactly do you propose? Ban “bump stocks?” Sure, I’m fine with that. But beyond that, what gun control proposal would have prevented Las Vegas or any of the more recent mass shootings?

The Washington Post offers a pretty straight-down-the-middle at recent mass shootings and gun laws: They don’t find any that would have been prevented by current gun control proposals. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/12/10/marco-rubios-claim-that-no-recent-mass-shootings-would-have-been-prevented-by-gun-laws/?utm_term=.c08aa91b4ee5.

The truth is that there is no easy answer to gun violence. A few things to consider:

There appears to be no relationship between the number of guns and the number of murders. There has been a 56 percent increase in gun ownership since 1994, and a 49 percent decline in gun deaths over the same period. There are a number of reasons for the decline in gun crime, including changing demographics, better policing, and so on. But it seems hard to make a claim that more guns inevitably leads to more crime. In addition, a look at states with widespread gun ownership does not show them to have higher murder rates. Guns are ubiquitous in, say, Vermont, but it hasn’t exactly turned into a shooting gallery. One can overstate this – most of these states, like Vermont, are rural – and have lower crime rates generally. Still, the relationship between gun ownership and crime generally are ambiguous at best.

It is true that other countries with stricter gun laws have lower murder rates. But there may be less here than meets the eye. Those countries frequently had lower rates of gun homicide before their most stringent laws were enacted. For example, while the number of gun deaths in Australia declined after it enacted a sweeping gun ban following the Port Arthur mass shooting, that was largely a result of a decline in gun suicides. The rate of gun murders does not appear to have dropped significantly.

The most common gun proposal is an expansion of the background check system. But Stephen Paddock went through a background check – and passed. There was nothing in his background that would have raised flags under even the most vigorous check. He even went through the associated waiting periods, and given the length of time he apparently planned his crime, a longer waiting period would have made no difference. The same is generally true in other mass shootings. The killers passed background checks. (The Newtown killer stole weapons from his parents who had passed background checks).

It has been suggested that those with histories of mental illness should be barred from gun ownership. That might indeed reduce gun deaths. But it needs to be balanced against the probability that it would discourage some individuals from seeking treatment. Moreover, how is mental illness to be defined? Anxiety? Depression?

The second most common proposal is to ban so-called “assault weapons.” The evidence from the previous (now-lapsed) assault weapon ban is inconclusive. According to the most comprehensive study of the law’s impact: “The ban did not appear to affect gun crime during the time it was in effect, but some evidence suggests it may have modestly reduced gunshot victimizations had it remained in place for a longer period.” That’s not a ringing endorsement.

An effective assault weapon ban would also be extremely difficult to legislate. That’s because there really is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” There is no difference in the firing mechanism between guns commonly described as assault weapons and most popular hunting rifles. As a result, most assault weapon bans prohibit weapons based on cosmetics or the inclusion of extraneous features, such as a pistol grip or collapsible stock. These restrictions are extremely easy to evade.

It also noteworthy that, while “assault weapons” are often a feature of mass shootings, they are not really part of the overall problem of gun violence. Only about 2 percent of gun murders are committed with assault-style weapons. Handguns are the murder weapon of choice.

We are not getting rid of guns in this country. Americans currently own more than 300 million guns. Roughly half of all American households own a gun. Suppose a gun ban passed tomorrow, and an unimaginable 90 percent of Americans voluntarily turned in their guns, that would still leave some 30 million guns out there. And, the people not turning in their guns are likely to be those I least want to have them.

Finally, I keep hearing that no one needs this or that type of gun to hunt. Well, “need” is amorphous concept. But, more importantly, let’s remember that there are many legitimate reasons to own guns besides hunting, such as: sport, self-defense, and, yes, a bulwark against tyranny. There would be less resistance to gun control proposals if supporters didn’t so quickly jump from “no one is coming for your guns” to proposals to broad gun bans or confiscation proposals.

Again, I’m perfectly willing to consider some type of gun control. But I am looking for practical, effective proposals that would actually reduce gun crimes, while still protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans. If you have such proposals, I’m willing to listen. Over to you…

On Taking a Knee

OK, folks, please square this one for me.

You have fun for years laughing at “liberal snowflakes,” who retreat to their “safe space” for milk and cookies when confronted with opinions they dislike. In fact, you’ve cheered when universities invite “controversial” speakers like Milo Yiannopolis, despite the fact that many students find his opinions not just offensive, but dangerous.

You thought it was an outrage when Google fired James Damore for circulating a memo to fellow employees that denigrated the emotional and intellectual abilities of women.

You are angry when protestors want to take down statues of those who actually fought against the United States in defense of an indefensible system.

Yet, when mostly African-American athletes quietly kneel during the national anthem in order to protest more than 400 years of racial oppression, including ongoing police abuse, you find that expression intolerable, worthy of presidential condemnation and a firing offense.

I say this as a veteran and the son and grandson of veterans. If I didn’t see combat, I have friends and relatives who did. People I knew gave their lives in defense of this country. For all its flaws, I love America, and have always respected the flag. Yet, the flag is not an idol to be worshiped. It a symbol of the values we hold. And one of the most important of those is the right to dissent.

It is easy for those of us, comfortably protected by our privilege, to suggest that those protesting should find another way to do so. Yet, consider the issue from their point of view. From 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore at Jamestown, until the slave trade was abolished in 1807, nearly 600,000 slaves were forcibly brought to this country. At the start of the Civil War, roughly 89 percent of all blacks in America, almost 4 million people, were slaves. Overall, between the arrival of those first black slaves at Jamestown and 1865, when the 13th Amendment officially outlawed slavery, millions of Africans and their descendants were held in bondage and servitude in the United States. They were routinely murdered, raped, beaten, and deprived of the most basic human rights. That represents an indelible stain on this country’s soul.

The oppression of African Americans hardly ended with the abolition of slavery. On paper, of course, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments promised equality. In reality, however, the end of slavery marked the beginning of a century of legally enforced second-class citizenship. In fact, while the worst aspects of Jim Crow were outlawed by various civil rights laws in the 1960s, the treatment of African-Americans has remained unequal.

Even if overt discrimination has greatly diminished today, the consequences of past discrimination are still with us. You cannot have a race in which one runner is loaded down with weights and chains for half the race, remove them, and suggest that from then on it is a fair contest.

Nor should we forget that, from abuses in the criminal-justice system to continued discrimination in employment, housing, and education, full equality remains more aspiration than reality. As a white man, with all the privilege that implies, I can’t even begin to imagine the toll that constant exposure to racism, from minor slights to full-blown discrimination, must take on its victims.

Yes, we have come a long way. Despite our ongoing racial problems, thing really are better than they were. Yet, much of the change that we now celebrate came about precisely because some people protested. Many, at the time, thought those protests were bad for the country, impatient, disrespectful, or unjustified. Aren’t we better off today, because those protestors spoke out?

This is not Anti-fa. This is not violent. This is not disrupting anything or taking away from anyone else’s rights. Protestors are silently kneeling. I may wish they weren’t, but I’m certainly not being harmed.

Perhaps instead of wrapping ourselves up in the latest episode of the culture wars, we should take this opportunity to reflect on what we can do to make our country a more perfect union, with more liberty and justice for all. That would be a terrific way to honor our country and our flag.