Seven State Travel Ban

So the rumored travel ban came into effect last night, and has led to considerable outcry. Here’s what it does:

  • Bans travel for 90 days from citizens of seven countries, including those with green cards: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Bans refugees for 120 days from above countries, and Syria indefinitely
  • Lowers the number of refugees to be settled in the US from 110,000/year to 50,000/year

The purported reason for the ban is to give the administration time to develop a better system of screening, Trump’s ‘extreme vetting,’ to identify and prevent radicalized persons from entering the country and causing harm. Despite invoking 9/11 in its justification, the order does not ban anyone from the countries where the 9/11 attackers actually came from: primarily Saudi Arabia, with Egypt and the UAE. So even if a blanket travel ban were effective in preventing terrorism, the absence of the actual countries where actual terrorists who killed Americans is puzzling; as is the coincidence that these same absent countries also happen to be ones in which the Trump Organization has business.

It is a legitimate for a government and a citizenry to take reasonable precautions to prevent those who would do harm from entering a country. But under what circumstances would such a blanket travel ban, temporary or otherwise, make sense?

I would imagine if we were at war with a country, it would be reasonable to restrict travel. Of course, we are not currently at war with any nation.

We could imagine a scenario in which intelligence agencies had information that an attack was imminent. This could potentially justify a sudden travel ban, but a scenario where there is knowledge of an attack but no specifics regarding persons beyond ‘anyone from these seven countries’ seems very unlikely.

If there is not knowledge of an imminent attack, a justifiable travel ban would need there to be an extremely high likelihood that restricted persons would engage in violent activity in the next 90-120 days. This would be a world where the United States was experiencing regular acts of terrorism, and where there was clear evidence existing protocols were inadequate and responsible for allowing said terrorists into the country. In this world, a travel ban along the lines of the one implemented yesterday could be justified.

But that is not the world we live in.


Since 9/11, there have been only a handful of what could be considered terrorist attacks, and fewer still clearly motivated by any sort of religious ideology. In the last 16 years, only 154 deaths are directly attributable to ‘Muslim extremism’. Tens of thousands more people die in car or gun accidents every year.

Refugees in particular are already subject to high scrutiny: in many cases, it can take up to three years for a refugee to be admitted into the country. As such, the idea that ISIS or some other organized terror group would attempt to sneak in through the refugee program is simply bizarre.

For any action, we must not only consider benefits, but also the costs. Yes, banning entry citizens of particular countries will lower the risk that we will experience terrorism from those people. But if that probability is already very low, then the expected benefit will also be low.

Some quick back of the envelope calculations. Let’s say this ban will totally reduce the probability of being killed in an immigrant terrorist attack to zero from the estimate of about 1 in 3.6 million per year. For the individual benefit, we multiply this probability by the value of a statistical life (VSL), which is commonly cited around $7 million dollars.

Benefit = P(death)*VSL = 3X10^-7 * $7X10^6 = $2

Roughly speaking, the average American gains a benefit of around $2 per year from this restriction. For the national as a whole, with 320 million people, that’s a benefit of:


Let’s say we just restrict the costs to the lost economic activity of refugees who will no longer be arriving, which will now be 60,000 less persons. Let’s generously say only half of them end up working, at the average salary of $30,000/year. The lost economic activity is, at minimum:

3X10^4 * $3X10^4 = $9X10^8 or $900,000,000.

Benefit-Cost = $640,000,000 – $900,000,000 = -$260,000,000

A utility loss of nearly $300 million.

Already, this policy does not pass a simple cost benefit test. And this figure does not account for any additional enforcement costs. It does not account for the costs to green card holders who are now unable to return to their jobs and families. It does not account for the cost to refugees with visas who were in flight when the order was signed have been detained upon landing, their legal status in limbo. It does not account for the lost productivity of the next Steve Jobs, a child of a Syrian refugee. It does not account for the lives that will be lost in war torn countries as people have nowhere to flee to. And it does not account for the moral stain on America that will damage our reputation across the world and lead to further radicalization as we play into the hands of extremist propaganda.

As a legitimate counter terrorism measure, this executive order does not pass any test of reasonableness. I think it obvious this was not the intention. I will close with a quote from Ben Sasse, a Republican Senator from Nebraska and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee:

“The President is right to focus attention on the obvious fact that borders matter. At the same time, while not technically a Muslim ban, this order is too broad. There are two ways to lose our generational battle against jihadism by losing touch with reality. The first is to keep pretending that jihadi terrorism has no connection to Islam or to certain countries. That’s been a disaster. And here’s the second way to fail: If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion. Both approaches are wrong, and both will make us less safe. Our generational fight against jihadism requires wisdom.”



Trump, Week 1

The first week of the Trump administration has already produced some striking shifts in policy. In more normal times, you would expect an incoming administration that only won the electoral college via 100,000 votes across three states, and lost the popular vote by millions, would proceed more slowly and with more care. The administration is acting as if they had overwhelming support for their positions. To the extent that any politician can claim a mandate for action, and I am very skeptical that there are ever legitimate claims to a mandate, this is far from such a situation. This is even more remarkable given the historical unpopularity of this President.

George W. Bush entered office under similarly contentious circumstances, but remained generally popular throughout his first 100 days. The most contentious of his initial actions was probably the reversal of Clinton-era environmental protections and the abandonment of the Kyoto protocols. His other major accomplishments in the first 100 days were a 1.6 trillion dollar tax cut and No Child Left Behind, both of which were passed through legislative means.

In contrast, even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the Trump administration seems prepared to govern through executive actions from the start. Here’s what we’ve seen so far:


First there is the order to ‘build the wall’ (more on that in a second). There is also an order that limits agents’ responses to catching people at the border, basically limiting them to detention or deportation.

Some perspective. This all seems very odd, given that 1) the number of people crossing the border is at historic lows, 2) the majority of which are no longer Mexicans, but asylum seekers from Central and South America, and 3) the fence that was built during the Bush administration seems to have done a pretty good job already of reducing flow of people.


Along these lines, as of this writing four additional executive orders have leaked to the press. Among these is a travel ban that bars anyone from several countries from entering the US as well as a suspension of refugee admission and reduction of total refugee allowance per year from 110,00 to 50,000. Notably, the list of countries on the travel ban excludes countries where the Trump Organization has business and where actual terrorists who actually killed people on 9/11 were from, and includes countries (like Iraq) that the US is responsible for creating the conditions people are trying to escape from.

Apparently the administration will also be publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants; whether the list would include legal immigrants as well was left unclear. I find this truly disturbing. As far as the best evidence shows, immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, do not commit a disproportionate share of crime. I think the potential for abuse of such a precedent is clear.

If we were in the midst of some sort of crisis, I could understand taking immediate action. If there were millions of people coming across the border every year, committing huge amounts of crime, yes, this would be a problem, and an administration would be justified in upping the ante. But as the facts stand, this whole line of action seems very strange.

The Wall:

‘The wall’ was one of Trump’s signature campaign themes, along with a promise to have Mexico pay for it. As noted above, border crossings from Mexico are at an all time low. The existing fence seems to be doing its job well enough:


Putting that to the side, the method for Mexico paying for the wall was floated at this: a 20% tax on imports from Mexico, which was quickly walked back as merely one possibility (Trump himself seemed to have no understanding of the matter). To an economist, this is patently absurd: a tax on imports is paid by the importers, i.e. US consumers and businesses. In fact, since much of what is imported from Mexico is intermediate and investment goods, this would also end up hurting American exporters.


The 2017 ACA enrollment period ends January 31st, and the last week typically has had the most sign ups (since we all tend to put things off until the last minute). As such, the government had a program of TV ad buys, as well as emails, reminding people to sign up before the deadline. Yet, the White House has suddenly cancelled all advertising, including ads that were already paid for. Given that insurance companies depend upon the young and healthy (who tend to be the last minute purchasers) to turn a profit, this action seems like a deliberate attempt to sabotage the marketplace.

Federal Hiring Freeze:

Another odd action was an order freezing the size of the federal work force. The number of federal workers, as a share of total employment, is at historic lows, and in terms of sheer numbers has been fairly stable for quite some time. I understand that many people feel the federal government is too large, but the number of government workers is not a problem.


This is a graph total number of government employees (federal, state, local) in blue, and share of government workers as a fraction of all employees. There is no trend of ‘out of control’ growth in the size of government. If you solely look at federal workers, that number has been hovering around two million and change for several decades.


As this piece convincingly argues, freezing federal hiring just means more money will go into the hands of unaccountable contractors. I share a belief in limited government, but flashy actions like this hiring freeze this do far more harm than good. 

Inauguration/ VOTER FRAUD:

So far, most of the actions taken have been what probably any Republican would have done in the presidency (excepting the wall). But the bizarre dust up over the size of the inauguration over the past week, as well as unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud, has been truly beyond the pale. In his first morning in office, Trump insisted that the National Park Service Director provide photos that proving that there were, “a million, million and a half” people at his inauguration. Apparently Trump doesn’t understand how visual perspective works, or rather, his ego won’t allow him. I have been to all three inaugurations since 2009, and this was definitely smaller than both of Obama’s. The photos circulating of the Trump crowd size accurately reflect what I saw.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Trump hadn’t had his press secretary convene a special press conference, with prop photos from the inauguration dais, to declare that this was the biggest inauguration ever, period. At the next press meeting, the press secretary tried to walk this back by insisting they were including television and online views, but 1) that is not the impression you get from watching the initial conference and 2) there is no good evidence this is true, either.

Then there is the ‘voter fraud’. Apparently, the President, who won, truly believes the only reason he lost the popular vote is because of widespread voter fraud. Of course, there is no evidence of this, and I find the voter fraud talking point to be one of the strangest of the last several years. Many people fervently believe it though, despite having no empirical basis; I suspect this is because a select few media outlets have been pushing the meme incessantly.

It may be easy to dismiss these last two incidents as minor personality hang ups, but in a real crisis this is a very frightening disposition to have: an inability to weight the veracity of competing narratives, an inability to consider that you may be wrong, an inability to set ego to the side. 

I haven’t even gotten into the unresolved conflicts of interest and the continued refusal to release his tax returns, but that will have to wait until another time. Overall, this first week was both aggressive and chaotic, and showed little sign of the supposed business acumen that many believed Trump would bring to the office. Instead, the White House spent its first week operating like a very badly run business; should we expect anything more?

Democracy for Realists, Part I

Democracy is our secular religion. Virtually every government on the planet at least pays lip service to the idea; even autocrats feel the need to maintain a veneer of democracy through rigged elections. But for many (in the Western world, at least) 2016 was a year that shook their faith. While the US in particular has significant problems with the design of its political institutions that are more to blame in this instance, a broader point remains: it’s time we began reevaluating democracy.

Democracy for Realists, which came out last year, is a work by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels seeking to do just this. Unlike some other recent works, summarised here, these two are not necessarily out to reject democracy. But they do seek to correct the narrative of how the democratic process operates. The failure lies not in democracy itself, but in the fact that we have designed political institutions with a flawed understanding of how democracy actually works.

The basic structure of the book is a systematic dismantling of most understandings of democracy. Having torn democracy down, they conclude by building a ‘realist theory of democracy’. Exciting stuff! I’m still reading the book, and so will be using this space to work through their argument.

To begin: what exactly is it about democracy that we like so much? Many of the characteristics that people like democracy for really have their origin in liberalism: equal rights and rule of law, for example. There are many instances of illiberal democracies, where the majority tramps on the rights of minorities, and a country like Singapore may be considered a liberal autocracy. It’s not inherent that the two go together, and indeed there is significant tension between liberalism and democracy, as Dani Rodrik and Sharun Mukand argue.

Setting that side then, what is unique to democracy that we find so appealing? A common answer might be that in a democracy ‘the people decide’, and this is the origin of the ‘folk theory of democracy’ and where Achen and Bartels’ argument begins.  

Under the folk theory, democracy is a way of aggregating preferences from the populace. If we have five people deciding on whether to get vanilla or chocolate ice cream, putting the matter to a vote will reveal the group’s overall preference. Because (alas) the world is not so simple, and for all of human history a system of direct democacy was wholly impractical, in practice democracies have used a system of elected representatives to convert the will of the people into action. Under the folk theory of democracy, representatives are understood to be, well, representatives: they are to express the views of their constituencies, regardless of their own feelings. They are a vessel. (This contrasts with the trustee model of representation, which we will come to in a later post).

Let’s say next year we’re passing a resolution on the official ice cream flavor of our nation. In the interim there is an election for our congress. Under the folk theory of democracy, people will vote for the party that represents their preferred flavor. If more people like chocolate best, they will vote for the party that is pro-chocolate, and we will end up with chocolate as our official ice cream flavor.

Obviously this is a simple example, but the intuition can and has been extended and formalized in the ‘spatial model’ of voting. The spatial model comes from economics, and is similar to models of competition in industrial organization. The canonical example is to imagine a stretch of beach. Beachgoers are randomly distributed across the beach. Now add two identical ice cream vendors to the mix. Where will they set up to capture the biggest market share of hungry customers? The answer is both will set up right in the very middle, giving each one half of the beach. (This assumes a uniform distribution; if the beach goers were distributed normally, then the vendors would set up at the location of the median beach goer.)

Likewise, we can imagine ideology to be a single continuous variable, like the narrow strip of beach, and political parties to be the vendors. To capture the biggest market share, both parties will set up at the location where the average ‘distance’ to any given voter is minimized: at the median. If the vendors can carry only one flavor, both will choose chocolate, because the median voter is pro-chocolate.

This model explained nicely the non-ideological parties of the postwar United States that dominated until the 80s and 90s: both were trying to maximize their market share, and so set up camp in the middle of political space. But there has been a well documented trend towards political polarization that challenges this model.

The challenges to the spatial model are both theoretical and empirical. Theory presents two major hurdles: first, the assumption of unidimensionality, and second, the challenges of Arrow’s theorem.

The idea of ideology as a single variable, with a left and a right, is of course common and part of our standard political lexicon. But for a long time there have been advocates of adding additional axes to political ideology, as can been seen in the many online political ideology quizzes. And when additional dimensions are added, the functioning of the spatial theory collapses: there is no longer any unique solution to the median voter question.

Furthermore, the work of Ken Arrow demonstrated that in any voting system with three or more choices there are no unique answers to the question of what the majority ‘wants’, because the design of the voting system can itself affect the outcome. Plurality voting can give a different answer from runoff voting: which is the true ‘will of the people?’

Let’s go back to the ice cream example. If we add a third flavor, suddenly things get more complicated. Let’s say 40% vote for chocolate, 30% for vanilla, and 30% for strawberry. In a plurality system chocolate would still win, despite the fact that 60% of people voted against it. Ranked or runoff voting systems try to deal with this by having voters make second or third choices, and transferring votes until one candidate receives a majority, but these systems can also lead to strange outcomes.

Now, even if theoretically we can dream up edge cases where voting is inconclusive, maybe in the real world democracy does well enough. Alas, no, as the empirical evidence shows that most of the time, voters don’t have particularly strong ideology. Strong partisanship, yes, but actual views on policy (when they exist) seem to have little correlation with voting patterns. As Achen and Bartels put it, ‘the folk theory is of little use in understanding actual democratic politics’ (p. 36), and I can think of no better proof than the 2016 election.

In sum, the idea behind the folk theory of democracy, that the public has coherent and knowable policy preferences and makes electoral decisions based on those preferences, is not tenable in the face of major theoretical and empirical evidence to the contrary.

Next time, we’ll deal with the argument that, by cutting politicians out of the process, a more direct democracy would lead to better outcomes, and then move on to the retrospective theory of political accountability.

Our Kids are Coming Apart, Part III

<Parts I and II>

Finally I’m finishing up with the two books and their proposed solutions to the problem of inequality of opportunity.

First, I think I mischaracterized Putnam’s position last time as being mostly due to developmental outcomes. A considerable amount of the book is about the decline in social ties both between the rich and poor and within low SES communities. High SES communities still possess an informal social safety net that was distributed in a more egalitarian manner a few generations ago. So for example, a high SES child that develops problems with addiction or depression has a much broader social well to draw upon for support. A low SES child with the same problems simply does not. Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone was about the general decline in social ties among Americans; what Our Kids shows is that this decline has not been evenly distributed.

What do these authors propose be done to remedy the divergence they’ve described? For Murray, as he put it in a discussion forum with Putnam, “I’m a libertarian…we don’t do solutions.” And that is the sense you get from his book. Perhaps surprisingly, the one concrete proposal he makes is for a guaranteed basic income for all Americans (of around $10,000/year) as a replacement for current welfare programs.

He also suggests that the successful should be more vocal about their cultural values. Not in a paternalistic way, but in a ‘City Upon the Hill’ way. If I recall correctly he frames it as “preach what you practice”. After all, one of the consequences of class segregation is that the poor don’t have much contact with the behaviors of successful people. In Putnams’ book, actually, there is a wrenching anecdote about one of the interviews where a low SES father asked if he could bring his children to the session so they could meet a real college graduate.

Ultimately, there is a great deal of pessimism in Murray’s view, stemming from his belief in the primacy of biology. Looking beyond Coming Apart to his whole body of work, we might sum up his view as thus: cognitive ability matters; genetics determines cognitive ability; culture/virtue can compensate for low cognitive ability; welfare programs disincentive ‘virtuous’ behavior. This makes his support for a GBI less surprising, since he believes that the current smattering of welfare programs have bad incentives while also believing that the poor should not be left behind in the new high cognitive ability economy.

Putnam has a more policy oriented plan. He argues for an expansion of the EITC and child tax credit (to add to incomes), strengthening food stamps, housing, and child care support, and an invigoration of center-based early childhood education: these all correspond to dealing with 1b) in my causal scheme.  For 2a), he suggests criminal justice reform (to reduce the breakup of families for non violent offenses), investment in failing schools (which I found odd, considering his own evidence suggests that schools don’t make much of a difference in life outcomes), and neighborhood reinvestment. In general, it’s a pretty standard center-left policy oriented program.

What I want to dwell on for the remainder of this post is this base assumption both authors make: that societal sorting by class is a given. It’s certainly a reality, as they both document extensively, but need it be so? It’s similar (and related to) to debates around income inequality: it is better to let the market ‘speak’ and address inequalities after the fact with transfers (EITC, EBT, and the like); or is it better to focus on making pre-transfer incomes more equitable through investments in education, wage policies, and so on (basically make less productive workers more productive so their market price is higher)? Likewise, is it better to allow people to sort themselves by SES into areas with vastly different wealth, cultural tastes, political clout, crime, etc, and try to mitigate after the fact? Is the degree to which this occurs in the United States natural, or have we created a system that led us down this path?

If there were a way to prevent sorting, we could cut the Gordian knot of biological and social factors that make post hoc solutions to SES heritability so intractable. I’ll consider two possibilities: One, that the sorting is inevitable and that it requires active pushback; and Two, that policies are the main driver of intense sorting, and that changing said policies will mitigate the issue.

First let’s deal with the idea that sorting is inevitable and requires active pushback. An example of a country that has actively worked to prevent sorting along ethnic lines is Singapore. In contrast with its neighbor Malaysia, which has a similar mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indians, Singapore has been largely successful in integrating its different races together (Malaysia remains very divided along ethnic lines and tensions continue to grow). The government has achieved this through a course of forced ethnic integration: housing has racial quotas, the parliament has guaranteed seats for minorities, and there are strong penalties (including jail time) for racially charged speech. While not perfect, by all accounts this system seems to work pretty well, but it requires a strongly paternalistic governmental system that runs counter to many conceptions of liberalism (in the classic sense).

Here in America, we have a (failed) example in the history of desegregation and the busing program that forcefully integrated school districts in the wake of Brown v Board of Education. The resulting implementations of integration were highly unpopular, possibly led to exacerbated sorting through ‘white flight’, and at this point in time school busing programs have been largely dismantled. Or to go further back we can look to Reconstruction, another attempt at forcing racial integration that failed.

Now, it could be the case that ethnic integration is a far greater hurdle than economic integration, in which case the growing disentanglement of race and class is a positive development, and the heavy hand of government isn’t necessary as a corrective. In this case, we could be in the second world described above, where bad policy is what has led to the status quo. What policies would these be?

My number one culprit, as I’ve mentioned before, is housing policy. I really think that outdated zoning laws, density restrictions, historic preservation rules, and the like are the source of a lot of America’s current problems. Additionally, the horrific redlining (both official and unofficial) of the past was a huge contributor to current segregation and racial wealth gaps. I don’t think it’s too crazy to imagine a past with more liberal housing policies and strict non discrimination laws leading to a more egalitarian present. But would it be enough?

Government attempts to reshape society should be viewed skeptically. We don’t have to look very far in space or time to see why. In general, I believe we should err on the side of less intervention and tend to prefer solutions that allow markets to play out naturally. What I worry about is the case of social problems that cannot be solved without coercion, as may very likely be the case with inequality of opportunity.

How can we, a priori, determine in what instances radical government intervention is appropriate? Can dramatically unpopular policies ever be justified? These are the questions we will need to grapple with as we struggle to keep our kids from coming apart.