Sunday, January 27, 2019

Open Borders: Where Bernie Agreed with Trump

There is such a thing as left-wing populism on the issue of immigration, both legal and illegal. When Bernie Sanders called open borders a "Koch Brothers proposal" which would make the poor in America far worse off, was he wrong?

It was the same thing Cesar Chavez thought about the impact of illegal aliens on his unionized farm workers. “As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes." See his 1972 interview with KQED News in which he explained the need for boycotts when growers can use illegal aliens as strike-breakers. Was he wrong? (Trigger warning: he doesn't just call them "illegal aliens.")

Hey, if Trump's brand of right-wing populism doesn't succeed, its left-wing counterpart might get a shot.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The State of the Union, Past and Present

This year's State of the Union address was scheduled for January 29, but, given the current brawl between President Trump and Speaker of the House Pelosi, who knows whether - or where - it will be given.

But if President Trump is even half the internet troller he seems to be, I think he should tweet out highlights from Bill Clinton's SOTU address of 1995, in which Trump's predecessor deplored the violations of law and the public burdens of - in his words, words which are rarely spoken on Capitol Hill today - illegal aliens. There isn't much Trump could add to the clip embedded above.

Notice that Clinton got a standing ovation from those remarks. Say, were Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in the audience then? I think they were.

Notice as well his reference to the Barbara Jordan Commission report, which had absolutely Trumpian recommendations. In particular, see its chapter on Curbing Unlawful Migration (starting on page 118), which concluded that "reducing the employment magnet is the linchpin of a comprehensive strategy to deter unlawful immigration" [page 128], and called for "restricting eligibility of illegal aliens for publicly-funded services or assistance except those made available on an emergency basis or for similar compelling reasons to protect public health and safety or to conform to constitutional requirements" [page 136] and "continued attention to improved means for identifying and removing criminal aliens with a final order of deportation" [page 149].

The report also called for scaling back family chain-migration, the prioritization of highly-skilled immigrants, elimination of the admission of unskilled workers, and elimination of the diversity visa lottery. It further recommended capping legal immigration admissions to only 550,000 per year, and refugee admissions to only 50,000.

President Trump could adopt that whole report as his present agenda.

Published This Week: Lessons of the Iraq War

The U.S. Army War College finally managed to publish that study of the Army in the Iraq War, which General Odierno had wanted to see before he retired. (See my previous post about that study.) It looks like exactly the bucket-of-cold-water he wanted it to be. Whether or not it will wake anyone up remains to be seen.

Here's Volume One, and here's Volume Two.

The bottom line is in CHAPTER 17, CONCLUSION: LESSONS OF THE IRAQ WAR, starting on page 639:
The Iraq War has the potential to be one of the most consequential conflicts in American history. It shattered a long-standing political tradition against preemptive wars. John Quincy Adams’s presumption that America should not go “abroad searching for monsters to destroy” was erased, at least temporarily. In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, the pendulum of American politics swung to the opposite pole with deep skepticism about foreign interventions.

In terms of geostrategic consequences, the war produced profound consequences. At the time of this project’s completion in 2018, an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor. Iraq, the traditional regional counterbalance for Iran, is at best emasculated, and at worst has key elements of its government acting as proxies for Iranian interests. With Iraq no longer a threat, Iran’s destabilizing influence has quickly spread to Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, as well as other locations. As the conflict expanded beyond its original boundaries, the colonial creation that was the Iraqi-Syrian border was effectively erased. Bashar al-Assad, having misjudged his ability to control the Salafist foreign fighters that he gave safe haven for the better part of a decade, found himself threatened by the very forces that he had exploited to avert an American invasion―an invasion that in actuality was never forthcoming. Syria was plunged into a vicious civil war that devolved into a brutality only seen in the worst conflicts of the 20th century, resulting in a death toll that has topped half of a million, repeated use of chemical weapons, and the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Kurdistan evolved from a proto-state into a de-facto nation, a development that has created deep tensions with Turkey. The danger of a Sunni-Shi’a regional conflict, with potentially globally destabilizing effects, is now greater than at any time since the original schism. Zarqawi’s goal appears to be on the cusp of becoming reality.

The human and material cost of the conflict was staggering. Nearly 4,500 American military personnel lost their lives in the fighting, and another 32,000 were wounded―many of them grievously. More than 300 soldiers from other coalition nations also perished. Estimates on Iraqi casualties vary wildly, ranging from roughly 200,000 killed to more than a million. Monetary costs, for the United States only, are similarly hard to approximate due to the challenge in estimating future costs for veterans’ care and the interest on loans taken out to finance the war. There is no question that the war has been expensive, ranging even among the lower estimates from a cost of over 800 billion to nearly 2 trillion dollars.

At the same time, there are those who argue that the Iraq War, as well as the conflict in Afghanistan, represent historical aberrations with few germane lessons. Supporters of this position posit that conflicts involving COIN and nation-building sit far from the World War II style of traditional war” for which the Army typically has been held responsible. Such potentially existential conflicts are so much harder to prepare for, they argue, that investing time on COIN related tasks would be counterproductive, if not irresponsible. Adherents of the position that the Army should return to its “traditional” warfighting role also suggest that it is relatively easy to train “down” from high intensity conflict against other armies.

The authors of this study conclude that such positions are intellectually specious. Ironically, many of the same arguments were made before the invasion of Iraq and during the first few years of the war. As a result, precious lives and time were lost before the Army adapted to the character of the conflict and was able to regain the initiative. It is one of this study’s core premises that there are additional complexities in COIN that often do not exist in more conventional conflicts. Translating national political guidance into battles and campaigns that blend both traditional maneuver and deft political efforts that target the drivers of conflict is a complicated art. Leaders at all levels in COIN have to be able to integrate the fields of political science, culture, and regional history simultaneously with military strategy to achieve success. Long-term security force assistance, a staple of COIN, is difficult, dangerous, and frustrating. Peacebuilding, the process of nurturing reconciliation, building durable and tolerant institutions, and carrying out political and economic transformation are intensely challenging tasks. U.S. efforts toward this end in Iraq were inefficient, disjointed, and ultimately unsuccessful.

Given the consequences and the cost of the Iraq War, it is essential that the Army studies what went wrong and why. The Army must also capture the innovations and adaptations that produced tactical and operational successes. Above all, the United States must not repeat the errors of previous wars in assuming that the conflict was an anomaly with few useful lessons. This project was commissioned by the Army’s senior leadership in part because they believed the Army had spent the first few years of the Iraq War relearning the lessons of the Vietnam conflict. Hopefully, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War will help prevent that error from being repeated.

While the next war that the United States fights may be different from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be risky to assume that it will be so different as to render the lessons of those conflicts moot. The character of warfare is changing, but even if we face peer or near-peer competitors in future conflicts, they are likely to employ a blend of conventional and irregular warfare—what is often called “hybrid warfare” or “operations in the gray zone.” The United States may not have the luxury of choosing the next war it fights. Our enemies are aware of the challenges we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan and will incorporate lessons that they have derived from these conflicts against us.

The failure of the United States to attain its strategic objectives in Iraq was not inevitable. It came as a byproduct of a long series of decisions—acts of commission and omission—made by well-trained and intelligent leaders making what seemed to be reasonable decisions. At one point, in the waning days of the Surge, the change of strategy and the sacrifices of many thousands of Americans and Iraqis had finally tipped the scales enough to put the military campaign on a path towards a measure of success. However, it was not to be, as the compounding effect of earlier mistakes, combined with a series of decisions focused on war termination, ultimately doomed the fragile venture.

It is for the efforts and immeasurable sacrifices of our Soldiers that this work is dedicated.

Above all, this history is meant to be a permanent record of their accomplishments and their willingness to give the last full measure of devotion for their own country and for the people of Iraq.

I'm struck by that sentence about the difficulty of "translating national political guidance into battles and campaigns ..." because I don't remember any coherent national political guidance ever being given. The War College is being too hard on its own institution. Maybe what we really need is a lessons learned study about the failures of the Washington DC foreign policy establishment.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

57 Million Americans Are Worse Off Than Furloughed Feds

Unemployed men in 1931 dressed better than almost anyone does today 

As direct-hire employees of the U.S. federal government, you and I have a rare good deal. Don't doubt it. Many of my fellow feds have never experienced the private sector, but over in the world of 'at will' employment there is no job security at all, and paychecks do not always arrive on time when liquidity crises occur. Almost no one in the private sector has defined benefits plans anymore, and pensions went away along with the industrial economy. The economic uncertainty some feds are now experiencing is the norm for quite a few of our fellow citizens.

I get it that people have sad tales to tell, but the plight of some federally-employed people simply does not have the political utility some think it has. Americans who live in the gig economy all the time are not likely to be moved.

Today 36 percent of all workers in the U.S. are in the gig economy, where there is no expectation of the kind of pay and benefits that federal employees can take for granted. And we can take it for granted, even if it is temporarily delayed.
"Gallup estimates that 29% of all workers in the U.S. have an alternative work arrangement as their primary job. This includes a quarter of all full-time workers (24%) and half of all part-time workers (49%). Including multiple job holders, 36% have a gig work arrangement in some capacity."

This works out to about 57 million Americans.

Gallup has a broad definition of gig work. Again from their report:

...the gig economy includes multiple types of alternative work arrangements such as independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary workers.

About those defined benefit plans, they are very scare Outside the Beltway:
The percentage of workers in the private sector whose only retirement account is a defined benefit pension plan is now 4%, down from 60% in the early 1980s. About 14% of companies offer a combination of both types.

Meanwhile, the few employers that still offer traditional pensions - typically industries with a strong union presence, such as the airline and auto sectors – have been working overtime to cut deals to either reduce or eliminate their plans.

If you work for the government?

That's a different story. Traditional pensions are still offered by about 84% of state and local governments.

So count your blessings, and get a second job, just like so many others have to do all the time. Hey, they always need substitute teachers:
Fairfax County Public Schools has added a second hiring event for furloughed federal employees interested in substitute teaching positions. The event is scheduled for Tuesday, January 15, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at the FCPS Administration Center, 8115 Gatehouse Road, Falls Church, VA 22042. The initial event, scheduled for Friday, January 11, is at capacity.

Don't turn up your nose at sub jobs. They're scheduled day-by-day, so are good for people who may be called back to work at any time, and any type of second job beats applying for unemployment insurance. The money you make is yours, whereas that unemployment benefit will have to be paid back after the shutdown is over, and to qualify for it in the first place you have to be seeking a new job – usually proven by going on three job interviews a week – whereas you furloughed feds aren’t, really, seeking another job.

And don't forget, there are three federal government paydays in January, so everyone had already gotten one check before the lapse in appropriations hit for some yesterday. That will help.

No one can tell how much longer the shutdown will last. Since Trump is passing on the Davos conference this year, that might suggest he expects it to go on past the conference dates of January 22-25. The State of the Union address is scheduled for January 29, and that seems like it would be a good time to wrap things up. Who knows? But I would not expect it to end before the SOTU.

Most Head Shakeningly Bad Thing of the Week

Flight delayed after passenger apparently tries to throw coins into engine - Shanghaiist

Twice before, elderly Chinese travelers have been caught throwing coins in a plane’s engine in a bid to earn some good luck towards having a safe flight.

TSA Sickouts Continue, Same as Before

As the Partial Government Shutdown of 2018-2019 extends past the first missed payday, there is lots of press attention being paid to TSA airport screeners calling in sick to protest (TSA Sickouts Worsen Daily), and some speculation that the screeners might quit en masse.

To which I say, what's new about that? Not much. It's the same old situation as before anyone missed a paycheck:
The Transportation Security Administration is a revolving door for more than 8,000 screeners at 10 of the busiest airports in the U.S., data obtained by Bloomberg Law suggest.

The TSA hired nearly as many agents at some sites as left their jobs between 2012 to 2016, according to information provided by the agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The TSA doesn’t separate the data by why an employee left, so the numbers include those who quit, were fired, or retired.

-- snip --

The TSA employs a total of about 11,700 screeners at the 10 airports. The turnover rate across those sites ranged from 30 percent to more than 80 percent over the five years analyzed. Turnover among federal employees overall has hovered around 15 percent during the past three years, Hausknecht said.

Being an airport screener is just a terrible job, and high turnover is inevitable.

Will the churn of TSA personnel get even greater now that they have missed a paycheck - or, more accurately, have had their pay delayed until the shutdown is over? Maybe. And if so, will that make airport screening even slower and more erratic than it is already? Yes, probably. And finally, is there anything that can be done to resolve the Partial Government Shutdown of 2018-2019 anytime soon? No, not really.

One can only feel sympathy for those unpaid screeners. But I wonder if any of that sympathy will continue after the shutdown is over.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Partial Government Shutdown of 2018-2019 Gets Real Next Week

No furloughed fed has missed a paycheck yet. That will start to happen on January eleventh, the first payday of 2019 (see this handy federal payroll calendar). Until then, all the huffing and puffing between Trump and the House leadership is just so much stage-setting for the deal they will eventually make.

Yet, people are worried. While browsing an article with advice for furloughed federal employees I came across a terrific 2015 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research about how furloughed employees coped with a loss of cash income during the last government shutdown, the one in 2013. Some of the figures on liquidity of the average employee astonished me.

From the paper's abstract:
Using comprehensive account records, this paper examines how individuals respond to a temporary drop in income following the 2013 U.S. Federal Government shutdown. Affected employees saw their income decline by 40% on average, which was recovered within two weeks. Despite having no effect on lifetime earnings, spending dropped sharply, implying a naïve estimate of the marginal propensity to spend of 0.57. This estimate overstates how consumption responded. To smooth consumption, individuals adjusted by delaying recurring payments such as mortgages and credit card balances. Those with the least liquidity struggled most to smooth spending and were left holding more debt months after the shutdown.

Here are the figures I found astonishing:
Prior to the shutdown, the median worker in the data held an average liquid assets balance sufficient to cover just eight days of average spending.

Moreover, liquid assets exhibit systematic changes over the pay-cycle. Just before payday, the median level of liquid assets is only five days of average spending. Indeed, a substantial fraction of this population barely lives paycheck-to-paycheck. On the day before their paycheck arrives, the bottom third of the liquid assets distribution has, on average, a combined checking and savings account balance of zero.

Think of that, the median worker in the data held an average liquid assets balance sufficient to cover just eight days of average spending. Do that many federal employees live paycheck to paycheck?

And the bottom line best advice for feds critically short of income:
This paper provides direct evidence on the importance of deferring debt payments, especially mortgages, as an instrument for consumption smoothing. Mortgages function for many as a primary line of credit. By deferring a mortgage payment, they can continue to consume housing, while waiting for an income loss to be recovered. For changing the timing of mortgage payments within the month due, there is no cost. As discussed above, that is the pattern for the bulk of deferred mortgage payments. Moreover, the cost of paying one month late can also be low. Many mortgages allow a grace period after the official due date, in which not even late charges are incurred, or charge a fee that is 4-6 percent of the late payment. Being late by a month adds only modestly to the total mortgage when interest rates are low, and mortgage service companies cannot report a late payment to credit agencies until it is at least 30 days overdue. Even if there are penalties or costs, late payment of a mortgage is a source of credit that is available without the burden of applying for credit.

The shutdown might be resolved before it comes to the point of deferring mortgage payments. Should the House agree to pass the El Chapo Act, for instance, that might let both sides call it a win. Or Trump might even bypass Congress and sell bonds, which is a current practice of the federal government to raise money for other purposes, or tax the billions of dollars in cash transfers to Mexico and Central America, something that could be done using regulatory authority.

So it might not come to that. But if it does, the home you own is your best store of value.