Your Morning Trump

President Trump met with airline executives today:

Mr. Trump said the air-traffic control system is “totally out of whack”....“We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays,” Mr. Trump said. “And we have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports.”

What's your guess? When he said "obsolete plane system" was he referring to air traffic control? Probably. Do you think he's aware that the FAA is already in the middle of rolling out NextGen, a massive upgrade of America's air traffic control? Probably not. Would it be nice to have a president who doesn't sound like a third grader? I think so.

In other news:

  • Trump is pissed off at Sen. Richard Blumenthal for passing along the news that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch called Trump's attack on the judiciary "demoralizing" and "disheartening." Trump's response: attack Blumenthal for misrepresenting his Vietnam-era military service a couple of times, and imply that he's lying again even though several other people have confirmed Gorsuch's comments.
  • Trump is also pissed off at John McCain for having the gall to suggest that a military operation under the Trump administration could be anything other than a resounding success.
  • Kellyanne Conway joined her boss this morning in trying to pump up sales of Ivanka Trump's clothing line. Unlike her boss, however, Conway is not exempt from conflict-of-interest rules. However, enforcement of ethics rules is usually left to the head of the federal agency—which in this case is Donald Trump. I think we can expect a pretty relaxed attitude toward these kinds of violations.

Welcome to Thursday.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most war-torn places on earth. Much of the money to keep the war going comes from mining operations in the eastern part of the country that are effectively controlled not by the distant central government, but by militias and warlords that enslave workers and smuggle ore out through the DRC's eastern border. In an effort to cut off their source of funding, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill includes a provision that discourages companies from buying the so-called 3TG metals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold) from conflict areas. So how has that worked out?

That depends on who you ask, of course. But a surprising number of neutral and lefty sources think the policy has been a failure. For example, here is Lauren Wolfe of Women Under Siege:

Barnard College political science professor Séverine Autesserre has...estimated that only 8 percent of the country’s ongoing conflict has anything to do with natural resources. Moreover, in the September 2014 letter, the signatories noted that “armed groups are not dependent on mineral revenue for their existence.” Many groups can easily turn from minerals to palm oil, charcoal, timber, or cannabis to make money — not to mention extortion, illegal taxes, and other means.

....When Dodd-Frank passed, Congolese President Joseph Kabila put a ban on all mining and mineral exports in North and South Kivu and Maniema provinces. Though the ban was officially lifted in 2011...its ripple effects have persisted: Many artisanal mines have remained closed, and countless livelihoods have been destroyed, according to academics and activists. [Laura] Seay estimated in 2012 that between five and 12 million Congolese had been “inadvertently and directly negatively affected” by the loss of employment created by the ban and its aftershocks.

Here is the conclusion of a study by Dominic Parker and Bryan Vadheim:

Using geo-referenced data, we find the legislation increased looting of civilians, and shifted militia battles towards unregulated gold mining territories. These findings are a cautionary tale about the possible unintended consequences of imposing boycotts, trade embargoes, and resource certification schemes on war-torn regions.

The GAO says that most Western companies have no way of telling whether the minerals they buy come from conflict zones:

Ben Radley, one of the researchers behind We Will Win Peace, a documentary about the brutal warfare in the eastern DRC, says he has learned to be cautious about well-meaning movements:

There are three shortcomings to the “conflict minerals” campaign that came out of this work. It misrepresents the causal drivers of rape and conflict in the eastern DRC. It assumes the dependence of armed groups on mineral revenue for their survival. It underestimates the importance of artisanal mining to employment, local economies and therefore, ironically, security.

....The relationship between advocacy organizations headquartered in Western cities and their marketed constituency of marginalized and disadvantaged African groups is...tenuous. One of the most striking elements during the making of the film was the difficulty of finding Congolese groups in rural and peri-urban areas who knew about and supported the “conflict minerals” campaign. This suggests a lack of engagement with the people who stand to be most directly affected by campaign outcomes.

There are, of course, lots of advocates who continue to favor the ban on conflict minerals. They say that one of the biggest militias in the conflict area has been put out of business by the ban, and that more progress can be made by strengthening the hold of the central government in the eastern DRC and tightening the programs designed to trace the source of minerals. For the most part, though, their evidence of success tends to be very anecdotal.

Beyond all this, there's another reason it's difficult to know for sure what the ban is and isn't responsible for. The UN has been spending a billion dollars a year on peacekeeping operations in the conflict area for over a decade, and it's all but impossible to know how much of the recent success—if success there's been—is due to the Dodd-Frank ban and how much is due to the UN.

Bottom line: it's not easy to know whether the conflict mineral ban—which Europe joined in 2015—has been successful. The whole issue is also highly politicized, since large corporations that buy 3TG minerals have fought against the ban since the start.

Why bring this up now? Because a leaked memo suggests that President Trump plans to sign a memorandum suspending the conflict mineral ban for two years. I don't know if that's a good idea or not. However, I sure wish I had more confidence that it wasn't just a bit of payback to companies like Intel, which have lobbied for a long time to get the ban rescinded. Trump is hoping that these companies will play ball with his continued PR campaign to take credit for every new factory built in America—as Intel did today—and this sure seems like the kind of reward that will help keep his gong show going.

If you want to talk about mass incarceration, here's the most important fact to know: 90 percent of all American inmates are kept in state and local prisons. Unless you have some specific reason, you should pretty much ignore all statistics about the federal prison system.

This is not Keith Humphreys' main point in his Wonkblog post today about mass incarceration, but it might as well be. If you look at state lockups, here's the basic data for why most folks are incarcerated:

Drug offenses make up only about 15 percent of the total inmate population. And since it's common to plea down to a minor drug offense from a more serious offense, even this probably overstates the number of people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. So if we want to reduce the prison population, decriminalizing drugs won't make much of a dent. Instead, we need to focus on our response to violent crime:

In the eyes of many politicians, activists and most of the voting public, tough punishment of nonviolent drug offenders is the main driver of mass incarceration in general and disproportionate imprisonment of people of color in particular. But in his new book “Locked In,” criminologist John Pfaff challenges that assumption, attributing mass incarceration primarily to violent crime and the public policy response to it.

....Given the outsize role of violent crime in mass imprisonment, what should be done about it? Pfaff favors “cutting long sentences for people convicted of violence, even for those with extensive criminal histories, since almost everyone starts aging out of crime by their 30s.” He also advocates for relying less on prison altogether and expanding community-based anti-violence programs that have strong evidence of preventing violence in the first place.

Our main reaction to the violent crime wave of the 70s and 80s was not just to lock up more people, but to lock them up longer. A lot longer. However, there's little evidence that longer sentences do much to deter crime, and as Pfaff says, once prisoners get into their 30s there's not much evidence that keeping them locked up prevents very much crime. My horseback guess (I haven't read Pfaff's book) is that we could cut the average sentence for violent crimes in half and it would have only a minor effect on crime rates. Partly this is because we overshot the sweet spot for reducing crime by a lot in the 70s and 80s, and partly it's because criminals these days aren't as violent as they were in the past.1

Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest lifts in all of politics. Even now, no one wants to be "soft on crime," and it's inevitable that if we did reduce sentences, some of the prisoners would go out and commit more crimes. All you need is a few examples of that to run some devastating TV ads, and there's no question that these examples would be out there. Pfaff has the right idea, but it's unlikely to get an audience anytime soon.

1Yes, because of reduced lead poisoning. Really.

Consider the following three things that have happened in the past month:

  • After years of promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally have the power to do it. But they've suddenly discovered that it's going to be a lot harder than they thought.
  • President Trump kept his campaign promise to institute "extreme vetting" of refugees and visitors to the US, but the rollout was bungled so horribly that he's losing support for it even among Republicans.
  • Last week Trump approved his first military operation. It was a disaster. The evidence here is a bit murky, but it suggests that the raid was vetted less stringently than usual because of Trump's desire to cut through red tape and give the military more freedom to fight terrorism.

These are examples of what Barack Obama was talking about when he told Trump that "reality has a way of asserting itself." More generally, it's the result of a Republican Party that has been averse to policy for a very long time. They have principles and beliefs, but they don't spend much time thinking hard about how to implement those principles in the most efficient possible way.

They believe that Obamacare is a failure. They believe that immigration should be shut down. They believe the military should be unleashed. But these are just bumper stickers. They haven't spent much time developing serious policy responses on these topics because (a) that would give Democrats something concrete to attack, (b) their base likes bumper stickers, and (c) policy analysis has a habit of highlighting problems with ideological purity and pushing solutions toward the center.1

George W. Bush had the same problem with policy. Remember what John Dilulio said in his famous "Mayberry Machiavellis" letter to Ron Suskind?

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, nonstop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking — discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

This problem is now a couple of decades old and shows no signs of abating. Quite the opposite: Donald Trump makes Bush look like an analytical genius. But even on their own terms, conservative rule is going to end disastrously if both Trump and congressional Republicans don't spend a little more time on policy analysis and implementation issues. There are only so many disasters that even their own base will put up with.

1Democrats, arguably, have the opposite problem—too much regard for policy analysis—which is why lefties are often so contemptuous of them.

In the Wall Street Journal today, a couple of old-school conservatives propose a carbon tax as a response to climate change. But there's a catch. Here are George Shultz and James Baker:

We suggest a solution that rests on four pillars. First, creating a gradually increasing carbon tax. Second, returning the tax proceeds to the American people in the form of dividends. Third, establishing border carbon adjustments that protect American competitiveness and encourage other countries to follow suit. And fourth, rolling back government regulations once such a system is in place.

....The eventual elimination of regulations no longer necessary after the enactment of a carbon tax would constitute the final pillar. Almost all of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority over carbon emissions could be eliminated, including an outright repeal of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Robust carbon taxes would also justify ending federal and state tort liability for emitters.

Schultz and Baker recommend a $40 per ton "tax and rebate" scheme that would be progressive because it returns a bigger proportionate share of the tax to working families than to the rich. And since it's revenue neutral, presumably Grover Norquist wouldn't issue a fatwa against it.

Now, this is all pie in the sky, since Republicans will never agree to it. But how about liberals? What should they do if this deal were on the table?

For starters, $40 per ton of carbon1 is about the equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of gasoline and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired power. Coal is already declining because it's not price competitive with natural gas, and a carbon tax would pretty much put it out of business for good. Gas plants would remain competitive compared to wind and solar, but only barely. As solar prices come down and the carbon tax rises, even natural gas plants would become uncompetitive. Here's the effect on coal from a study by the Energy Information Administration:

So that's all good. But what regulations would get tossed out? There are two main categories: regulations on power plants and EPA's CAFE standards for cars and trucks. My guess based on the relative numbers is that a $40 per ton carbon tax would probably be as effective as current regulations when it comes to power plants. Giving up those would probably be a good trade. However, it would almost certainly be too low to have much effect on driving and fuel economy. CAFE standards aren't perfect, but they have succeeded in substantially raising the fleetwide fuel economy of cars and trucks. The carbon tax wouldn't—at $40 per ton, anyway.

Here's an illustration from the EIA study. They looked at a $20/ton tax on electricity generators vs. a $20/ton tax on all carbon sources. There's virtually no difference. The tax on power plants has a big impact, but expanding the tax to gasoline accomplishes almost nothing. It's just too small to have much effect.

Of course, in this study EIA was assuming that CAFE standards stayed in place. A carbon tax would obviously have a bigger impact if there were no other regulations already pushing up fuel economy. However, even with CAFE repealed it wouldn't be enough—though there is a possible compromise: a $40 per ton carbon tax plus another 60 cents per gallon tax on gasoline. As a side benefit, the gasoline tax would also provide the revenue to fund significant amounts of infrastructure repair. Offer me that, and I might well be willing to give up nearly2 all EPA regulations on carbon.

Of course, I'd want to know just how "gradually" the carbon tax is going to rise. One approach to this might be to target certain regulations for immediate repeal and others for repeal only when certain tax levels are met.

As always, the devil is in the details. But a carbon tax plus a gasoline tax in return for an end to EPA regulation of carbon might be a deal worth looking at. I doubt that the subject will ever seriously come up, though.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting calculation. The EPA has allowed auto manufacturers to trade greenhouse gas permits since 2012. This paper, in the middle of a bunch of math, says "In the first-order condition λ is the shadow value of the CAFE constraint. With permit trading this shadow value equals the permit price." Meanwhile, this paper estimates that the current permit price is roughly $40 per Mg. One megagram is about a ton, so the permit price is in the neighborhood of $40 per ton.

In other words, the effect of the current CAFE standards is about equal to the effect of a $40/ton carbon tax. This is a rough approximation, but it's at least suggestive that a $40/ton carbon tax would provide the same benefit as all our current CAFE standards, and probably do it more efficiently.

1This is actually $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, which is a common measurement. I assume that's what Schultz and Baker are talking about too, though their op-ed doesn't provide that level of detail.

2There are some exceptions. For example, methane leaks wouldn't be affected by a carbon tax. The only way to reduce them is by ordinary old regulation. There are some other exceptions too.

This is outrageous:

The president of the United States shouldn't play favorites. This tweet should have mentioned that Neiman Marcus also dropped Ivanka's line. Belk, Jet, ShopStyle, and Home Shopping Network too.

I'm also a little confused by Trump's syntax. What exactly is it that's "terrible"? The fact that Nordstrom dropped Ivanka's line? Or the fact that Ivanka is always pestering him to do the right thing? Maybe both, I suppose. Trump is a recognized master at packing a lot of innuendo into 140 characters, after all.

And finally, I have some bad news for Trump: his tweets seem to be losing effectiveness. He needs to up his game.

Did Donald Trump learn his bullshitting skills from the Army, or is it the other way around?

“Only about one-third of our [58 Brigade Combat Teams] are ready,” said Gen. Daniel Allyn, Army vice chief of staff. “Of the BCTs that are ready, only three could be called upon to fight tonight in the event of a crisis.”

As James Joyner says, "This is either utter horseshit or an admission of gross malfeasance on the part of Army leadership." Luckily for the Army leadership, I vote for the former.

Our adventure in Yemen last week failed to kill its target; caused the death of numerous Yemeni civilians; resulted in one dead American sailor; and ended with the loss of a $70 million helicopter. Now comes another blow:

Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.

....The raid stirred immediate outrage among Yemeni government officials, some of whom accused the Trump administration of not fully consulting with them before the mission. Within 24 hours of the assault on a cluster of houses in a tiny village in mountainous central Yemen, the country’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid in a post on his official Twitter account as “extrajudicial killings.”

This is why decisions about risky operations normally come only after "the kind of rigorous review in the Situation Room that became fairly routine under President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama"—not over dinner, as this one was:

Mr. Trump will soon have to make a decision about the more general request by the Pentagon to allow more of such operations in Yemen without detailed, and often time-consuming, White House review. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will allow that, or how the series of mishaps that marked his first approval of such an operation may have altered his thinking about the human and political risks of similar operations.

This presents Trump with a dilemma. It sure looks like that detailed White House review is a good idea. On the other hand, we all know that he has nowhere near the patience to sit through regular, hours-long meetings in the Situation Room where he can't have CNN on in the background. He's learning that it's not all fun and games being president, but it's not clear how he'll react to that.

Every day brings new stories out of the White House about what an idiot Donald Trump is. I kinda sorta try to stay away from them, with only sporadic success. But this one is worth it for reasons unrelated to the anecdote itself. Here are S.V. Date and Christina Wilkie:

President Donald Trump was confused about the dollar: Was it a strong one that's good for the economy? Or a weak one?

So he made a call―except not to any of the business leaders Trump brought into his administration or even to an old friend from his days in real estate. Instead, he called his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, according to two sources familiar with Flynn's accounts of the incident.

Flynn has a long record in counterintelligence but not in macroeconomics. And he told Trump he didn't know, that it wasn't his area of expertise, that, perhaps, Trump should ask an economist instead.

Just for the record, the answer about the dollar is: it depends. But a weak dollar is good for boosting exports and reducing the trade deficit, so that's probably what Trump was looking for.

These anecdotes are basically liberal porn for those of us who revel in reports of Trump's almost unfathomable ignorance. I include myself among the revelers, but I also know that there's no way of knowing for sure which of these stories are true and which are just malicious gossip. What's more interesting is the topic of the rest of the story:

Unsurprisingly, Trump's volatile behavior has created an environment ripe for leaks from his executive agencies and even within his White House. And while leaks typically involve staffers sabotaging each other to improve their own standing or trying to scuttle policy ideas they find genuinely problematic, Trump's 2-week-old administration has a third category: leaks from White House and agency officials alarmed by the president's conduct.

…Information about Trump's personal interactions and the inner workings of his administration has come to HuffPost from individuals in executive agencies and in the White House itself. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

While some of the leaks are based on opposition to his policies—the travel ban on all refugees and on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations, for instance—many appear motivated by a belief that Trump's words, deeds and tweets pose a genuine threat.

This is truly bizarre and unique. Every new White House has lots of growing pains and plenty of leaks. But they never feature leak after leak after leak portraying the president as a boob. That's something new.

At this point, I'm mostly curious about who's doing the leaking. Is it career staff from the Obama era who are still working in the White House until they get reassigned? Or is this coming from folks who were actually hired by Trump? If it's the former, it's still unprecedented but probably just represents lingering resentment. However, if Trump's own people think he's an idiot and are happy to let the whole world know it, something is very, very wrong.

But I don't know which it is.

I'd forgotten all about this, but tonight was the date of the great Ted Cruz-Bernie Sanders debate. Apparently Cruz decided to haul out the old chestnut about Canadians fleeing en masse to the US for health care, which just proves how crappy government-run medicine is.

Lots of people are pointing out that this isn't really true, but I want to point out something different: Americans flee the US in pretty similar numbers to Canadians fleeing Canada. The best numbers we have suggest that about 45,000 Canadians left the country for medical care in 2015. (That's all destinations, not just the US.) Meanwhile, about 250,000 Americans left the US for medical care abroad. And these numbers don't even count the number of Americans who get their prescription drugs from overseas.

Overall, then, that's about 0.13 percent of Canadians and 0.08 percent of Americans who flee their countries for health care. Those are pretty similar numbers. The only real difference is the reason for leaving. Canadians mostly cite wait times for elective surgery. Americans mostly cite the high cost of medical treatment.

So you see, every kind of health care system has its own problems. Canada's is bad for rich people who can afford to pay top dollar to get faster service. America's is bad for poor people, who would go bankrupt if they paid American prices. Check your moral compass and take your pick.