Goodbye 2019 (and good riddance)

As 2019 and the decade of the 20 teens comes to a close, the impeachment of Donald Trump, only the third President impeached in the history of the United States, dominates the headlines.  My hope (I am a crazy optimist) and wish for my country’s sake is for Trump’s trial in the US Senate to adopt rules that most everyone will see as fair. That means giving Trump every opportunity to state and defend his case and the opposition every opportunity to state theirs. Some Republicans have denied the evidence presented in the House investigation that Trump offered favors (White House visit and military aid) to Ukraine President Zelensky if he would investigate the activities of Trump’s political opponent’s son in Ukraine. Other Republicans, such as Congressman Will Hurd, accepted the evidence but argued that the offence was not sufficiently serious to justify impeachment. Congressman Hurd’s judgement reflects the fact, I suppose, that political standards have sunk so low that we now accept that every President lies to us and abuses his authority (see the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers  I think it would be a mistake to accept and normalize such behavior.

Here are some of the key issues of this year (at least those I wrote about) and a few of my blogs/articles about them:

Health care insurance

Given medical costs must be paid by someone (the recipient of the care, the tax payers, insurance premiums, etc.). Insurance shares the cost (the lucky who are well help pay for the unlucky who are sick). But how services are paid for (what and how much is covered by insurance, etc.) will also influence the services provided and their cost.

Trade war and protectionism

President Trump has torn up the rule book for negotiating freer and freer trade. The result so far has left us worse off.  Fed economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce found “that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices.”

Trump pulled out of the progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), negotiated a “new” North American Free Trade Agreement (whatever he calls it) that is worse than the existing NAFTA except for the new parts taken from the TPP, worsened trade with China (so far–see Federal Reserve report above), alienated potential partners who would have happily joined us in negotiating with China, and angered the EU with whom he wants a new trade agreement. His potentially illegal uses of tariffs have introduced government protection of favored industries increasing crony capitalism. He continues to weaken the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has provided the bases of increasingly free rule-based trade since WWII. The growth in trade over the last 70 years has helped lift most peoples of the world out of dire poverty.  The number of people living in extreme poverty fell from 2.2 million in 1970 to 0.7 million in 2015.

Foreign wars and policy

President Trump rightly condemned our forever wars and promised retrenchment. I agree with his assessment of our excessive military aggressions and deployments abroad, but for one reason or another he has failed to deliver. The New York Times reports that: “Under President Trump, there are now more troops in the Middle East than when he took office.”

Trump seems to act on impulse without serious consultation with his National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon, decimating our diplomacy. His periodic insults to our foreign allies haven’t helped either.  Nor have his love affairs with Putin, Kim Jon-un, and Xi Jinping (do you see a pattern here?).  Diplomacy is the alternative to military adventures for serving our national interests abroad. Trump has failed to fill important State Department positions and seems to pay little attention to his NSC and State Department briefings. Having removed two ambassadors to Ukraine in one year (this year) because his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, thought they were insufficiently loyal to Trump, the U.S. currently has no ambassador in Ukraine.  Trump’s stewardship of our international relations has been a disaster.

Then there was Trump’s intervention in Military justice: From the Military Times: “President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency in the cases of three military members tangled in war crimes cases raises questions about whether troops are being given a green light to disobey the rules of law…

Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.  Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes while being convicted of posing with a dead Taliban member, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.”  “We-shouldnt-forget-what-whistleblower-seals-told-us-about-eddie-gallagher”  What is Trump thinking? What does he have in mind?

Monetary policy and the international monetary system

While monetary policy has been relatively good for a floating exchange rate system, asset price bubbles and international currency flow imbalances persist and, in my view, are unavoidable. We need to adopt a hard anchor for the value of the dollar.  The shockingly large fiscal deficits (over one trillion dollars per annum in 2019) with a fully employed economy, when we should be running a budget surplus to provide room for deficits during the next downturn, are building serious risks for the not so distant future. Trump’s attacks on the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy will make managing those risks more difficult.

Information and the Internet

The Internet has had a profound impact on how we live and do business. It is hard to imagine a day without our mobile phones. But like all new tools and technology it opens the door to new ways of doing harm as well. This is currently most conspicuous with the spreading of fake news and learning anew what news sources to trust and not trust.

Domestic politics and Trump

In my discussions of the Trump administration I have tried to focus on policies, some of which I like and some I don’t, rather than on Donald Trump himself, about whom I like nothing. The following focuses on Trump.

My friend Jonathan Rauch explains the limitations of my efforts to focus on policies in an article well worth reading. “Believing is belonging,”

Modern Society and its challenges

If we move away from personalities and dig deeper into our human motivations that inform policy design and choices, we can’t escape the role of incentives at the center of much of the analysis of my profession–economics. I have and will continue to explore my thoughts on human nature and the role of incentives, institutions, and customs in our search for how best to live free with others seeking their own goals in our society.

Happy New Year


Comments on the All-Volunteer Military

My friend and former University of Chicago classmate sent the following comments on my All-Volunteer Force note. From 1989-93 Chris Jehn was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel.

I read with interest your recent essay on unintended consequences of ending conscription in the U.S. Having spent a large part of my career on issues surrounding implementation of the All-Volunteer Force. I was curious to learn what consequences you had in mind. I was disappointed to read, “the top 20-30 percent of income earners in the United States provide almost none of their sons and now daughters” to the military. Where did you hear this? It is a commonly held view of liberal critics of the military, but, like many persuasions of the left, it is not based on fact. (You could have looked it up. See Table 41 of the DoD population report at Using the only available data on the issue, census tract home of record for new enlisted recruits, DoD/CNA analysis shows that 18.5% of recruits in FY 2011 came from the top quintile of the income distribution. Adding new officers to the analysis (not possible since officers’ original home is not carried in their military records) would probably raise that percentage somewhat since virtually all new officers are college graduates. It is surprising to many to learn that the recruits each year are drawn more or less evenly from across income quintiles, but this has been true for 30 years now.

However, the overall percent of the population recruited each year is quite low, regardless of income class. (About 4,000,000 kids turn 18 each year and the military recruits somewhat over 200,000.) This leaves most families without any first-hand connection to the military and that is another lament of the left (and some on the right). I think this is usually mindless World War II envy. At the end of WW II, about 12 million men and women were in uniform, about 10% of the TOTAL population of the U.S. So that meant everyone knew many in the military. That’s not true today. To match that percent today would require a military of over 30 million (compared to today’s 2.5 million, including reserves). And this demographic phenomenon was ultimately the source of draft opposition in the 1960s (and has been in many European countries recently). When most draft-age men serve (as they did in the ’50s) conscription’s inequities are more tolerable. The increasingly large birth cohorts of the baby boom changed that.

But fundamentally, all the debate about the military’s “representativeness” is silly (whether it’s representativeness in terms of socioeconomic class, race, geography or anything else). The requirement for representativeness is based on a view that military service is a burden to be equitably distributed rather than a profession freely chosen and well compensated. In other words, it is antithetical to the notion of a force of professional volunteers.

Another liberal criticism of the AVF is that it has enabled military adventurism. There is no evidence for this assertion either, despite its face appeal. Interestingly, the only Gates Commission member I’ve discussed this with, Allen Wallis, thought this was a positive aspect–freeing the President to use the military without immediate political pushback. So, at least for Wallis, this consequence was not unintended. Of course, pushback from the draft objectors didn’t slow Johnson and Nixon down much, despite an eventual 50,000 deaths in Viet Nam, ten times the toll of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I must apologize for not inviting you to a CNA event in September when we discussed many of these questions at a symposium to honor Walter Oi. I think you would have found it interesting. We did a reprise at last month’s AEA meetings in Boston. Most agree Walter was the most important economist in the battle to end conscription. Among my remarks, I said the following about Walter:

“There are many heroes in this story [of the end of conscription]: the Gates Commission members, Mel Laird, Marine Corps Generals Wilson and Barrow, Army General Max Thurman, and many economists and other analysts. But among the analysts and economists, none was more important than Walter Oi.

It’s tempting to cite instead the economists on the Gates Commission, Milton Friedman, Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan. They were essential. But they were advocates, cheerleaders. Walter made the first empirical, data-based argument for voluntarism. And that case helped convince President Nixon and, later, other Gates Commission members. It’s possible that without Walter’s early work—which, as the Hogan-Warner paper notes, stood the test of time and subsequent analyses—conscription would have ended much later, if at all. There were, after all, other politically plausible proposals to ‘fix’ the draft and end the controversy surrounding it, not just a force of all volunteers.”

Some support for my argument is contained in a short note Stephen Herbits prepared for the CNA event (also attached). As part of the planning for the two events, I interviewed the two surviving members of the Gates Commission, Herbits and Alan Greenspan. That was fun and educational.

I should also note that an AVF’s budget costs are not clearly higher than those of a conscripted force of equal capability, due to the high turnover and training costs for draftees. The most careful analysis of this question was GAO’s in 1988. I cite it (as well as my article on conscription in Europe) in my piece on conscription in David Henderson’s encyclopedia (

Finally, I think your memory of the 1960s may have failed you here. You and your colleagues may have had some skin in the game. The first lottery in 1968 included those under 26 who had held student deferments. You were probably too old, but I and other classmates were subject to conscription depending on our lottery number (based on our birth date, not our Selective Service number). I luckily drew a number in the 300s.

As for your concluding proposal, while your draft-related arguments don’t support it, it has merit on other purely budgetary grounds, as you note. I too think it’s unconscionable that “overseas contingencies” (to use the Pentagon’s euphemism) are funded through supplemental appropriations funded from borrowing and the general revenues. (And DoD has not “suffered” as a result. You can safely ignore the whining on the subject by Pentagon leaders and their allies in Congress and the press.) But your proposal will never go anywhere. If the Congress had wanted do things differently, they wouldn’t have been doing it like this for as long as I can remember.)

I hope you find much of this interesting, perhaps even educational. If you do nothing else, please look at the Warner-Hogan paper: “Walter Oi and His Contributions to the All-Volunteer Force: Theory, Evidence, Persuasion”, by John T. Warner and Paul F. Hogan, presented at the Contributions to Public Policy: A Session in Honor of Walter Oi, American Economic Association Annual Meetings, Boston, MA, January 3, 2015


The All Volunteer Military: Unintended consequences and a modest proposal

America’s war in Vietnam, its longest before Afghanistan, relied on the obligatory military service of its young men if drafted. When we turned 18, we were required to enroll with the Selective Service System and those of us who did not volunteer lived in terror for about ten years of eligibility that we would be “called up.” To protect the education of our more talented youth, deferments from the draft were given to those of us in college. Not surprisingly this did not go down well with those who could not or chose not to go to college and the fairness of the system was challenged. Thus, college deferments for anyone older than I was (lucky me) were ended and replaced with a lottery at the beginning of each year based on the selective service numbers we received when we first enrolled. Those whose numbers where at the top of the list were sure to be drafted and those closer to the bottom were sure not to be.

Because of the draft the majority of American families with sons were emotionally involved and connected to the war and as it became more and more unpopular this broad connection helped finally bring it to an end.

In 1967, a group of libertarian University of Chicago students and I founded the Council for a Volunteer Military to publicize the inequities of the draft and the benefits of an all volunteer military. We were not subject to the draft ourselves as our college deferments were grandfathered, and thus we were purely motivated by our sense of fairness and believe in the superior effectiveness of a volunteer Army. The Council’ directors were Jim Powell, Henry Regnery, myself as Executive Secretary, Danny Boggs, and David Levy (the one who is now a Professor of Economics at George Mason U). Our Sponsors included my teacher, Milton Friedman, as well as Yale Brozen, Richard Cornuelle, David Franke, James Farmer, Karl Hess and socialist Norman Thomas.

President Richard Nixon appointed Professor Friedman to a commission to study the viability of an all volunteer military headed by Thomas S. Gates, Jr. This led to Nixon’s replacement of the draft with higher pay and other employment conditions that made it possible to man our military with hired professionals. The result was a more expensive (the draft was effectively a tax on those drafted, who tended to be poorer to begin with) but significantly more effective military. After some years adjusting to the new approach, even the Generals praised the great success of our all-volunteer force.

As our military adventurism of recent decades has resulted in more and more American troops fighting and dying abroad, some observers have noted that the volunteer force left most American families unaffected directly by these wars thus undercutting the opposition they might otherwise express. This was obviously an unintended and negative aspect of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). If there were no way to compensate for this negative consequence, the AVF would still be the best and fairest approach to manning our military. However, there is a simple way to help mitigate this negative feature, which has much merit in its own right.

Since 2001 our wars have cost us $1.6 trillion dollars ($10.5 million dollars per hour). This is just the direct budgetary cost and does not take account of the lives lost and other indirect costs and distortions to the economy, worsened relations abroad, etc. While the top 20-30 percent of income earners in the United States provide almost none of their sons and now daughters to fight these wars and thus might be more inclined to support them, they do provide almost one hundred percent of the taxes raised to finance our government. (In 2012, the latest income tax data available, about half of American families reported taxable income of which the top 50% paid 97.2% of all income tax revenue in that year. The top 5% of tax payers earned 36.8% of total adjusted gross income reported that year and paid 58.9% of total income taxes received.) None of the costs of these wars have been paid for by raising taxes or cutting other spending (except within the Defense Department, where equipment and weapons development expenditures suffered). The funds were borrowed from those buying U.S. treasury securities, adding to our debt that will have to be paid by our children.

My modest proposal, echoing one made a few years ago by U.S. Congressman David Obey, D-Wis., who on Nov. 19, 2010 introduced H.R. 4130, the “Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010,” is that any budget supplemental appropriations to cover the costs of fighting abroad must be paid for fully by an income tax surcharge. See Bruce Bartlett’s discussion of this issue: By explicitly putting the cost on income taxes, any war and its financing will get the attention it deserves from the wealthier members of society who pay that tax. Taxing to pay for wars has the double benefit of adhering to principles of sound finance (properly paying for whatever the government spends), and of bringing the costs (at least the budgetary costs) of war to the pocket books of American voters.

The Egyptian Coup

Ousted Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi had been a miserable leader. He broke many promises starting with the Muslim Brotherhood’s promise not to run a candidate for President just yet and to lead an inclusive government. He forced through a new constitution without proper consultation or broad support, and failed to address Egypt’s many economy and political problems. He deserved to be replaced, but doing so by military coup seriously harms Egypt and the entire Middle East in several ways. The failure of the Obama administration to acknowledge the act as a coup deprives the English language of any meaning.

Obviously it is a set back for democracy. Morsi’s growing opposition should have organized to defeat him in the next election. Given his miserable performance it shouldn’t have been difficult. That would have strengthened democracy rather than weakened it.  One coup begets another until a leader can coop the military.

The more serious harm is to the social and political conditions needed for diverse people (Muslims, Christians, secularists, Jews) to live peacefully together. What, pray tell, do the secularists and military think the Brotherhood and their supporters will do after being removed from their elected positions and arrested? Go sulk in the Old Cataract in Aswan (of which I have very fond memories)? There is a high probability that they will resort to violence. As the Army kills more and more demonstrating Morsi supporters, the prospects of an insurgency increase rapidly, as occurred in Iraq and so many other places.

It has already started. In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula: “The rapid thud of machine-gun fire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades have begun to shatter the silence of the desert days and nights here with startling regularity, as militants assault the military and police forces stationed across this volatile territory that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.” (The Washington Post, July 29, 2013, page 1) Hundreds have already been kill by the military or insurgents and the violence is growing rapidly. How could it be otherwise?

And it is spreading. Tunis has been the most promising model of transition to democracy. Following the assassination of two opposition leaders in Tunis, mass demonstrations have escalated into terrorist attacks that killed eight Tunisian solders Monday. President Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist president, stated in a television address that “In all countries of the world, when the state faces a terrorist attack people come together. But I don’t see anything like that happening in Tunisia. All we see is divisions and chaos.”

U.S. law requires the administration to cut off aid to governments that came to power by coups. This is clearly the case in Egypt and aid should be immediately suspended. For decades U.S. aid to Egypt has ranged between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars per year, over 80% of which is to the military. Congress would surely quickly suspend this provision for Egypt but should attach conditions for any resumption of aid. These conditions should call for restraint on the part of the military, free and open public debate, quick elections, and broad participation in the redrafting of the constitution.

The already troubled Arab Spring has had a series set back.