Trump, Mattis and Syria by David Montgomery

President Trump’s apparently spur-of-the-moment decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and its aftermath have stirred up a storm of criticism from all political directions. Whether U.S. troops belong in Syria is debatable, but the manner in which President Trump made and announced his decision to withdraw is very troubling. His subsequent order to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is even more worrisome, because there U.S. forces are clearly accomplishing important objectives.

Our friends in the Middle East, including the Kurds and Israel, were directly affected and taken by surprise. Our commitment to contain Iranian and Russian influence in the region – and other foes in other regions — was made questionable. The Secretary of Defense resigned in protest. And, for good or ill, in recent days the President’s intentions have become even less clear.

Secretary Mattis’s resignation in protest of President Trump’s surprise announcement followed the departures of General Kelly as chief of staff and Nikki Haley as UN ambassador. Respect for those three (plus Ambassador Bolton who remains) was the main reason that Republicans like me had confidence in the national security policy of the Trump Administration.

My first reaction was that President Trump’s gullibility in dealing with the Turkish dictator left our national security policy in shambles. Not, to repeat, because withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is necessarily a bad decision, but because of the way President Trump appeared to ignore our allies’ interests, strategic consequences and his own advisors’ recommendations.

For a number of reasons, some relevant and some irrelevant, I took time to reflect before expressing that opinion. I am now somewhat hopeful about how our allies will be affected, as announcements of an extended schedule and conditions for withdrawal have appeared. The strategic implications of what many characterized as repeating President Obama’s pusillanimous retreat from confrontation will likely depend on how the ongoing discussions turn out.

To me, the greatest tragedy is the continuing attrition of the President’s once outstanding national security team. I am not only troubled by Trump’s apparent ability to alienate his best people. I am even more disappointed by those resigned.

I see four key questions in assessing where things stand today:

What could a continued U.S. military involvement in Syria accomplish?
In what other ways will we support Israel and the Kurds?
How can Iranian influence in Syria be countered?
How competent a national security team will the President assemble?

There is no certainty about what will happen in Syria whether the U.S. leaves or stays. In the short run, an unconditional and immediate pullout would leave the Kurds vulnerable to a Turkish attack. The Kurds have, like Poland, retained a national identity despite having their territory taken over by larger countries. They stood up against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and have been our only unambiguous allies in the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately for the Kurds, Turkey has always wanted their oil-rich territory. U.S. troops in Syria have interposed themselves between the Kurds and Turkish forces and protected the Kurds from Turkey.

I consulted friends with national security backgrounds to understand the risks of a continued presence in Syria, such as Turkish attacks on U.S. forces embedded with Kurdish forces or trip-wire confrontations with Russia that would escalate U.S. involvement, There are serious uncertainties about whether the aid that U.S. troops give to non-Islamic democratic forces opposing Assad can make any difference in the long run to how Syria is governed, and whether that U.S. aid is simply lengthening the humanitarian crisis by delaying the inevitable victory of Assad’s regime.

Our only unambiguous national interest seems to be to prevent Iran from expanding its influence or taking over territory in Syria. That, it appears, might be accomplished at least as well by supporting Israel’s less constrained operations against Iranian assets in Syria and preparing U.S. forces remaining in the region to counter Iran.

Israel’s reaction to President Trump’s announcement has been interesting. Initial headlines in Israel lamented “Israel left with false Russian promises, volatile U.S. president.” Then within a week, Israel mounted an extensive aerial attack on Iranian weapons depots in Syria. According to Haaretz, “The alleged Israeli strike may have been in pursuit of some specific military goal … but it has a broader political context. Israel is signaling that Israel sees itself as free to continue attacking targets in Syria, when necessary.”

There does appear to be more to the story. Ambassador Bolton, the National Security Advisor, has been visiting Israel. It was reported over the weekend that he said “U.S. troops will not leave northeastern Syria until IS militants are defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected.” Israeli sources reported that Netanyahu had spoken to Trump and asked that any withdrawal be gradual, and Bolton confirmed “that there is no timetable for the pull-out of American forces, but insisted it’s not an unlimited commitment.” Sources also reported that the U.S. has promised continued intelligence and operational support to Israel in confronting Iran in Syria.

In all this, Bolton appears to be walking back the immediate and unconditional withdrawal implied by the first reports on the call between Trump and Erdogan. That did not please Turkey, which claims that the Erdogan never promised to protect the Kurds in Syria and that Bolton was not speaking for the Administration. On Tuesday January 8th Bolton met with his Turkish counterpart and they “identified further issues for dialogue.”

Other reports suggest that Erdogan may also have committed to more than he wants to do. According to Reuters, President Trump asked “If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'” When Erdogan stated that he could, Trump took him up on the offer saying “Then you do it.”

To do more than push back our allies the Kurds, Turkey will have to expand its operations over a far larger territory than it expected to attack, and runs the risk of engaging with the Damascus government’s troops and even Russians in order to get to the pocket that ISIS still controls. It is not clear that Erdogan’s staff are any happier than Trump’s. Diplomats often cringe when heads of state talk to each other about anything but the weather, and this seems to be a case in point.

More is at stake here than just the fate of the Kurds and Iran’s prospects in Syria. Trump’s initial announcement of immediate withdrawal seems to have led some adversaries to believe that he is returning to the isolationist populism that appeared at times during his presidential campaign. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that statements from the Chinese military have become more provocative in the weeks since he announced withdrawal from Syria.

All of this points to how important it is that the President rely on his national security team. Until now, the Trump Administration demonstrated a welcome reversal of President Obama’s policy of vacillation, weakness and unwillingness to lead. As I discussed in previous columns, the Trump Administration continually and consistently ratcheted up sanctions against Russia and took direct military action against Russian troops and contractors in Syria. It also restarted joint military exercises with the Eastern European countries facing Putin’s expansionist ambitions, confronted North Korea with threats of force, and revised the ludicrously restrictive rules of engagement that had frustrated and endangered U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It gave regional commanders freedom to design and execute their own battle plans and put the Pentagon under the management of tested military leaders.

It would tragic if the President’s snap decision about U.S. troops in Syria undid this progress and tempted adversaries to believe he would back off from confrontation as his predecessor did.

National Security Advisor Bolton appears to be getting somewhere in mitigating the damage from Trump’s off-the-cuff decision, but it remains unclear what authority he has been given to set new terms for withdrawal. This is the point at which the President needs to listen to and stand behind his national security team.

For the future, it is critically important that Pompeo, Bolton and the new Secretary of Defense find ways both to give advice and to be informed of decisions. The White House Chief of Staff should have the job of making sure that such two-way communication takes place. This should not be an impossible task. And the new Secretary of Defense has to partner with Pompeo and Bolton, not be someone who will pursue an independent agenda.

In this context, Secretary Mattis’s resignation puzzles me. There is no suggestion that the President requested his resignation. He still had an important job to do in shaping national security policy, no matter how great the immediate frustrations of dealing with this President. The changing signals being sent from the Administration about timing and conditions for withdrawal suggest that even now policy is moving in the direction he preferred.

One other aspect of the President’s sudden announcement might have been intolerable to a Marine general. Many of the U.S. fighters in Syria are special operations forces working closely the Kurds and other democratic forces against ISIS. Military men and women compete to get into special operations units, train intensively, and are motivated by a desire to do exactly what they doing in Syria. They are winning at this time, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory infuriates every professional.

Though I am sure that Secretary Mattis did not want to be seen as sending that message to people he had sent downrange, Marines don’t just quit. He had to feel an obligation to his men and women in uniform and to his country to keep on trying to point the President in the right direction. What could override that duty remains a troubling mystery.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

 

Winner Take All or Service to Others in Talbot County by David Montgomery

On Saturday Army beat Navy, which was disappointing but had little to do with the meaning of the traditional game. I think its spirit was captured when the Chaplain of the U.S. Military Academy began his invocation “Some wonder why we pray over a football game. So I tell them in this game, every player on the field is willing to die for every person watching. And there is no greater love than to lay down your life for what is truly good.  So I pray for the players on this field … and all those others who lay down their lives daily in our defense.”

After that, Navy’s loss did not trouble me anywhere near as much as my realization of how rarely we find that willingness to make even the smallest sacrifice for the common good among those we count on to lead us. Every soldier, sailor, airman, marine, police officer or first responder mentioned by the chaplain knows that he or she may be called on to make that sacrifice as part of his or her profession.

The Game is not the only part of this season providing such a reminder. Last week Chanukah celebrated how Israel was freed from foreign rule by the self-sacrifice of the Maccabees.  The Advent season prepares us for the birth of One who would sacrifice His life for the salvation of the world.

Yet now we find politics at every level in the nation dedicated to advancing the interests of an individual or a group that has divided itself from the rest of society. Racists of any color want that which belongs to those of a different race, and socialists want that for which others worked. LGBTQ activists want their wishes to determine how the other 95% of the population can speak, work, use public spaces, and raise their children.  Atheists want to prevent Christians from public affirmations of their faith. Most elderly want government benefits that will be paid for by their children to many generations. Many oppose immigration reform because they believe they will get better jobs and pay if borders are closed.

In this age of big data, political parties have found ways to craft their messages in two ways: 1. to encourage self-identification into groups whose members share a fear of some common threat and 2. to present the other party as the source of the threat.  Creating bogeymen is not a new political strategy. What is new is the ability to sort voters by the threat they can be convinced to fear, and to keep them focused on those individual grievances to the extent that they do not realize their party also recruits groups with diametrically opposite agendas.

Once this happens, politics becomes a win or lose proposition, with neither motivation or process to work with the other side.  Thus each election becomes a winner take all contest, and the winner feels free to impose whatever policies and programs its winning makes possible.

This is not just a characterization of the behavior of Republicans and Democrats when they win majorities of a House of Congress or the Presidency.  We now see it polluting the political process and threatening the civility of Talbot County. Due to the oddities of a County Council election in which the top 5 vote-getters in the general election are seated, the three with the lowest vote totals have been enabled to form a triumvirate with the intention of running Talbot County their way.

The election was hotly contested. A Bipartisan Coalition explained its opposition to policies adopted by the majority of the previous County Council, and those whose policies it opposed responded with more traditional political tactics.  Even more disturbing than personal attacks and dirty tricks, supporters of the Council’s policies adopted the “us versus them” tactics of national politicians, trying to convince the long-term residents of the County whom they wanted to recruit that some wealthy, retired interlopers were trying to destroy their livelihoods.  

As an aside, they did not seem to care about the absurdity of these claims.  The Bipartisan Coalition was created because the previous Council majority seemed to be giving in to all sorts of interlopers. Resort owners from out of state who want to provide the loudest entertainment they can get away with. Absentee landlords who do not care how disruptive their tenants might be to neighbors. Wealthy developers who want a simple way to bypass zoning regulations and and previous planned development decisions.

Nevertheless, the risk that excessive regulation will deter development in Talbot County needs to be faced.  Many residents who were born here and have deep roots depend on building and construction to supplement their income as farmers or watermen, either directly as construction workers or indirectly in businesses that supply building trades.  Their interest in opportunities for themselves and their children is as important as preserving the natural amenities of the County.

Until the past four years, Talbot County seems to have managed a balance among these concerns that was more or less acceptable to all sides, based largely on a Planning Commission and planning process that voters trusted and the Council respected.  It was the disregard for that process by the previous Council President that led to the campaign to defeat her.

To reiterate what everyone knows, the Council President dropped from second in the primary to eight in the general election, the lowest of the serious contenders. But three of those who had been following her lead come in third, fourth and fifth.

Now we return to the notion of sacrifice for the good of others.  Those three now form a majority of the County Council and appear to be perpetuating the winner takes all approach to politics.  They have elected two of their number to be Council President and Vice-President, freezing out the two who beat all of them in the popular vote, Laura Price and Pete Lesher.  Soon the Council will decide whether to return Ms Price to her position on a state-wide board of county officials, where she has served for a number of years as an effective and respected advocate for Talbot County. In January it will select members for the Planning Commission and Short Term Rental Board.

There are always winners and losers in decisions about local zoning, sumptuary ordinances, and development. The common good requires both principles and balance in making such decision. Messrs. DeVilio, Callahan and Pack seem poised to make their supporters winners in every case and those who opposed them losers, no matter what the longer-term consequences.

Politicians do not need to work this way, and they will not if the community refuses to let itself be divided.  Although the winner-take-all strategy may give the winners short term benefits, it is not a successful strategy for either political careers and long-term investments.  For a politician, serving only those who provide finances and votes only works if those supporters are a stable majority. That clearly was not the case in Talbot County, since a few hundred more votes for Keasha Haythe would have put the current majority out of business.

Nor is it sensible for those investing in Talbot County to create a divisive political atmosphere, in which rules and regulations affecting their business are changed with every election. Our stable and civil politics as well as our bond rating are critical matters for investors seeking location.

This suggests that the current Council majority would do well to be more inclusive of Ms Price and Mr Lesher, choose qualified, objective and independent members for the Commissions, and negotiate in good faith among all 5 of the Council members before taking votes. Anything else is shortsighted, suitable only for Council members who do not expect to run again.

If the Council majority is not willing to make this small concession to the common good, then it is incumbent for businesses, developers and residents to do it for them. The County Council majority may make general rules, but it is hard to believe they do not have input from those whom they appear ready to reward for their support.

The best outcome would be for those who have supported Messrs. Pack, Callahan and Divilio to start meeting themselves with the various community organizations and individuals who made up the Bipartisan Coalition. It is certainly more work than calling up a politician who is in your pocket to tell them what you want. But it is the right thing to do for the common good of the county and for the riskiness of your investments.

Likewise, those who opposed Ms Williams could follow Nancy Pelosi’s lead, and spend the next four years mounting a campaign to “Resist” the new Council majority and to harass them with investigations and lawsuits with every concrete action.

Neither of these sides, who now look like the French and German armies on the eve of World War I, should have any difficulty identifying the counterparts with whom they need to work.  If constituents decide to make some sacrifices for each other, politicians will have to follow. This is the right season to start.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Clean House in the Republican Leadership in Talbot County by David Montgomery

Laura Price has earned the position of President of the Talbot County Council, and the Republican Central Committee must clean house after its shameful behavior in the election. I write this as a firm believer in Republican principles who is concerned about the future of our party in Talbot County. The Central Committee and leading Republicans disgraced themselves during the election, and the top two vote-getters in the election were candidates they opposed. They must make amends if voters of Talbot County are to regain any respect for the local Republican Party leadership.

The Republican Central Committee and its proxies made what should have been a nonpartisan election into a test of party loyalty AND LOST. With this kind of disaster on a local level, cleaning house is the order of the day. Those members of the Central Committee who led the underhanded and unsuccessful attacks on the Coalition and Ms. Price should resign or be removed. That is not only what they deserve, it is something they should do for the good of the party.

The other Republican members of the County Council now have a duty: to elect Laura Price to be Council President and restore a unified party. Her election demonstrates voters’ opposition to policies those other Republicans have supported as well as the failure of their tactics. Messrs. Callahan, Divilio and Pack should immediately renounce any intention of continuing to push measures through with a 3 – 2 majority as was done under ex-President Williams. If nothing changes, I and many others predict that this will be the last “Republican” majority on the County Council for a long time.

A little background: the 2018 election for the County Council produced bitter divisions among Republicans. A bipartisan coalition of neighborhood, environmental, and other organizations mounted what was essentially a recall campaign against the President of the Council, Ms. Jennifer Williams. They produced a lengthy dossier of actions taken under her leadership that weakened noise ordinances, encouraged short-term rentals and subverted both the legally required planning process and the will of the people.

The initial thrust of the bipartisan coalition was to remove all three of the Council members who supported these actions – Williams, Pack and Callahan – but it later and later focused entirely on Council President Williams.

From the first hint of such opposition, Councilwoman Laura Price, a longtime Republican, was made a scapegoat, even though she had nothing to do with the formation or conduct of the “recall” campaign. The attacks on Ms. Price included dirty tricks, character assassination, false claims about her behavior, and letters to the editor under false names. Council President Williams and Connie Sheer, a member of the Republican Central Committee, hid behind vicious and personal attacks on Price written by their husbands. The Republican Central Committee unfairly and inaccurately condemned Price as “disloyal” and made the preposterous claim that opposition to one candidate “makes a mockery out of our local political process.”

It is hard to criticize Democrats for their treatment of Justice Kavanaugh when Republicans treat one of our own in the same way.

The voters ignored the attacks on Price and the position of the Republican Central Committee. The outcome was that Ms. Price came in first, a Democrat Pete Lesher came in second, then Chuck Callahan and Corey Pack. Republican Frank Divilio, who had linked himself to Williams, fell in the standings and barely beat out Democrat Keasha Haythe for the last seat. Jennifer Williams moved down from third in the primary to eighth out of ten in the general election, and Pete Lesher moved up from eighth to second.

No personal attacks on Ms. Williams were made by the Coalition, in stark contrast to the behavior of her supporters and the Republican Central Committee. The Coalition’s signs and advertisements pointed voters to the documentary evidence of how actions taken under her leadership would harm the quality of life in Talbot County.

As I mentioned in my column reflecting on the election, Talbot County voters showed that they do respond to facts and care about County more than party. Where Andy Harris, Johnny Mautz, Addie Eckardt, and Larry Hogan won with huge majorities, the candidate for County Council pushed by the Republican leadership went down in flames.

It is clear that the strategy of the Republican Central Committee to attack one of its own candidates and politicize the election failed, and spectacularly. But the threat posed by the previous majority to the quality of life in Talbot County has not entirely passed.

At its meeting on December 3, the County Council will elect a new President. Ms. Williams and Mr. Pack passed the position back and forth between themselves, excluding Ms. Price. Although two members of Ms. Williams’ majority, Pack and Callahan, were re-elected along with her protégé Divilio, there is now no valid excuse for passing over Ms. Price again. She had the most votes, and except for Mr. Pack has the most seniority in the Council.

The Council will also pick new members for the Planning Commission and the Short Term Rental Board.

Whether Divilio, Pack and Callahan will try to continue the damaging course on which they were led by the defeated Council President will be revealed by their choices in electing the Council President and filling those Planning Commission vacancies. Electing Laura Price to be Council President and filling the Planning Commission and STR Board with members who want to preserve the character and quality of life in Talbot County will show that they got the message. Any other action will constitute defiance of the clear preference of the voters with consequences for the local Republican Party in general and the local Republican Central Committee in particular.

It is my hope, and the hope of many other Republicans, that at least one of the other three Republicans will realize that not only their political future but the good of the County and the future of the Republican Party in Talbot County depend on their making choices consistent with the obvious will of the voters who “recalled” Ms. Williams and elected Mr. Lesher. They have no mandate to continue the disruptive policies they voted for under President Williams’ leadership – she was thrown out.

If Messrs. Callahan, Divilio and Pack decide to hunker down to push decisions through by a 3 – 2 vote and are supported in these actions by the Republican Central Committee, I predict that this will be their last term on the Council. Such perverse failure to perceive the policy preferences of the majority of voters is also likely to harm statewide and national candidates in the County, as it changes the entire Republican brand into one of old-fashioned machine politics.

The next Congressional election is likely to be much tighter than the last. Recent Court decisions require a re-do of the gerrymandering that made the 1st District a safe Republican seat and the 6th a safe Democrat seat, in order to create two competitive districts. The last thing Andy Harris needs is a fractured and disgraced Republican party in Talbot County. Thus I hope that our elected representatives Johnny Mautz, Addie Eckardt, and Andy Harris will also let the Central Committee know of their displeasure and push for visible change.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Reflection on the Election by David Montgomery

It is an honor and a pleasure to be a resident and voter in Talbot County. The outcome of the County Council election, as reported on Tuesday night, is a credit to the common sense of Talbot County voters and to their willingness to pay attention to the substance of what their elected leaders do. Though I supported it, I did not expect the Coalition to be able to communicate the facts about actions of the previous Council majority so successfully.

With Laura Price and Pete Lesher coming in one and two in the voting, and the fifth seat a dead heat between a neophyte Republican and a frequent Democratic candidate, the message from the voters should be very clear: we do not want unrestricted development that changes the character and quality of life in our County, but we do want to continue the sensible policies of previous Councils. That is what I wanted, and it is exhilarating to see how many share that sentiment. I hope all five members elected to the new Council take that to heart.

National news is not so congenial. I was sorry to see good political leaders like Paul Ryan decide to leave the Congress, and the loss of the House of Representatives is painful even though not a surprise. That may make it difficult to pass any new legislation for the next two years, but as a died-in-the-wool conservative I have seen much worse. The Trump agenda was well-established with tax reform, rollback under the Congressional Review Act of midnight Obama-era regulations, and elimination of some of the key fiscal props of Obamacare. I am not particularly enamored of the President’s aggressive trade policy, though I do see fewer downsides than many of his critics. China’s aggressive claims over the South China Sea, attacks on Catholic shrines and congregations that the Vatican surrendered to their control and persistent theft of intellectual property need to be countered as President Trump has done.

The Senate remains securely under Republican control, and that means that any currently sitting Justice who leaves the Supreme Court in the next two years will be replaced by a Justice who respects and interprets the Constitution and laws passed by Congress as they are written. It may not be too much to hope that the dissipation of the “Blue Wave” will convince Democrats that the unprincipled efforts to derail the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh were self-defeating.

Winning the Senate also means that no matter what antics the House of Representatives might engage in under Democratic control, the President and his appointees will be immune to impeachment.

Since I adhere to the maxim that Congress governs best when it governs least, I am not unduly worried about the likely impasse we will face over the next two years. It would be very good for the country if enough moderates are returned to the Congress by both parties that reform of basic immigration laws could take place and Obamacare could be revised into a less costly and more voluntary system. The numbers are not yet in to see whether the Democratic majority will include more ignorant socialists like Ocasio-Ortiz or more centrists like those supported by WithHonor.

My greatest concern is that the Democratic majority in the House will still be dominated by the nuts on the far Left, the inciters of violence like Maxine Walters and leaders like Pelosi who put their hatred of the President above the good of the country. We may well be in for two years of unending investigations of the President, encouragement of mob rule, and motions for impeachment. I console myself that those gestures will be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Actually, I have a more optimistic reaction, that such behavior, if it occurs, will ensure a second term for President Trump and a restored majority for Republicans in the House and the Senate.

Once again, the ability of Talbot County voters to see through the mud-slinging, character assassination and false accusations directed at Laura Price encourages me. She drew the most votes as of 0045 on Wednesday. If our example is a guide, voters can see through slogans and personal attacks and are willing to spend time thinking about serious questions about the policies that different candidates will pursue.

The outcome of the election also leads me to reflect on values and the loss of the House of Representatives. The Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas detested President Trump and Hillary Clinton almost equally. He argued in a recent article that it is never necessary to choose the lesser of two evils, and that the pursuit of justice and honor should not be abandoned just because we expect to lose. Good thoughts.

Hauerwas voted for a third, solidly conservative candidate who had not the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell (that I do believe exists) of winning. This is very different from the tendency of Catholic social thought since Pope Leo XIII to look for ways to be politically effective in advancing the common good, not to mention the role that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken in American politics, taking positions on everything from abortion and immigration to regulation of electric powerplants.

Hauerwas’s is a very appealing point of view, though I have argued (effectively, at least to myself) that in a fallen world it is necessary to be a political realist. Thus I can support a President of questionable character with whom I disagree on major issues as long as I am convinced that the common good is better served by his policies than those of his opponent. Inter alia, I think that most supporters of Bill Clinton made the same decision.

Where Hauerwas challenges my thinking is by reminding me that we cannot and should not expect government to solve the really big crises we face. His example is abortion: sure, we should vote against politicians who promote abortion. But might we not spend our time and money better by “serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resourced families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood…”

That is, it is possible to act directly and personally, admittedly at a greater cost of our own time and treasure, to introduce into the lives of specific individuals in our communities the kinds of grace that we mistakenly believe can be achieved through laws and government programs.

If this is the case, and the results of this election lead me to believe that Hauerwas has more insight than I like to admit, then it is necessary to work politically to ensure that we retain the freedom and ability to do these works of charity and express our fundamental beliefs publicly. That is why Supreme Court appointments are so important to me, to ensure that we retain not only freedom of worship but freedom to state our beliefs about public and private morality without fear or restriction and to assist our neighbors in the best way we know how.

But it also suggests that I do not care deep in my heart about the fine-tuning of tax policy or regulation of health insurance. The real crisis we face are not economic but rather are matters of faith and virtue: supporting our neighbors who are needy, preventing abortions one at time, being with the sick and dying, educating the young about the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing, bringing an understanding of virtue back into national consciousness, restoring a common heritage as a Christian nation.

We must be vigilant to preserve the space in which we do these things. That requires political involvement, to prevent laws from being passed that would allow bureaucrats to tell us who can be adoptive parents, how we can communicate the value of life from conception to its natural end, and what we may say about the morally acceptable forms of sexual activity.

I also believe it is important to resist accumulation of power and diversion of resources into national and even state programs when we could do better at the local and individual level.

We have wonderful examples of this in Talbot County. Our health department may not be in the most attractive of buildings, but we have many voluntary organizations and charities providing for needs of our neighbors. We have wealthy donors who fund capital improvements for public facilities and programs that serve community needs. This is called subsidiarity. But it requires limiting both taxation and spending by higher-level organizations, in order to have the resources and opportunity to act voluntarily and charitably to fill these needs.

To bring all this back to Tuesday’s election results. The triumphalism of the first two years of the Trump presidency, if any of us fell into that trap, are over. His policies were not repudiated, and what has been done will stand, but the temptation to expect Congress and the Presidency to correct the ills of our society is gone.

It is not a bad thing to be reminded of Jesus’s words that “my kingdom is not of this world.” We must care for each other, but not be seduced by the illusion of continuing progress and the attainability of perfection here on earth. That is the starting point of Hauerwas’s social thought. We are sojourners here, destined for somewhere else. We should follow Christ’s commandments in dealing with our neighbors, but not be deceived into believing that elections are somehow critical to bringing about the Kingdom of God.

Remembering Those Who Fought in Normandy by David Montgomery

 

Esther and I spent last week visiting the beaches and battlefields of Normandy where Allied forces landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Several in our group of 30 travelled here for the same reasons, to see where their fathers landed and fought to liberate Europe. For all of the sons and daughters, the trip was an emotional one: realizing the dangers their fathers faced and the continuous combat they experienced month after month, and wishing that they had known sooner what heroes their fathers were.  None of the fathers talked to their children about these experiences, they bore and suffered with their memories and feelings in silence.

Esther’s father, Pfc Raymond Stednitz, did write a memoir of his life, and from that and our own research we were able to reconstruct some of what happened after he landed on Omaha Beach with the 29th Division as part of the D-Day invasion.  Born in Hoboken, NJ, Esther’s father worked two jobs after school to support his single mother and older brother. He became a carpenter and at 21 years old was working as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when war was declared. He never expected to go to war when he joined the New Jersey National Guard in 1940, but when his unit was mobilized in 1941, he refused the deferment he was offered by the Commandant of the Navy Yard, writing later that “I decided to spend the next year with the guys I knew.”   

Though her father was from New Jersey, on arriving in England he was assigned to the 175th Infantry, a Maryland National Guard regiment known as the 5th Maryland before World War II.  Soldiers of the 5th Maryland served with distinction on both sides in the Civil War, inspiring the blue and gray shoulder patch of the 29th Division.  Esther’s father may well have served with soldiers whose children read the Spy.

Esther’s father was assigned as a machine gunner to Company D, the heavy weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry.  From Omaha Beach they first liberated Isigny and then advanced through the infamous hedgerows of Normandy toward their objective of Saint Lo, and we followed their path.

Driving down the lanes of Normandy revealed the dangers Esther’s father and his fellow soldiers faced.  The road and fields were still bordered by high banks topped by thick hedges, all of which could conceal a waiting German ambush.  Their progress was measured by the number of hedges they survived to cross in a day.

We stopped in the tiny village of Villiers Fossard to visit a monument commemorating a celebrated battle in which Esther’s father fought.  The monument was erected by veterans of the 29th Division from Baltimore, to honor the soldiers of the 175th who defended Hill 108, thereafter known as Purple Heart Hill, in a twelve-hour engagement on June 18, 1944.

The 1st Battalion, in which Esther’s father served, was leading the 29th Division’s advance on St Lo.  The monument told their story: “At 8:30 AM June 18, the enemy initiated a severe artillery bombardment followed by a strong counterattack against the 1st Battalion.  Heavily outnumbered, [they] stalwartly held their ground. Nearly surrounded, running low on ammunition, and out of communication with its supporting artillery unit, … the Battalion held on for more than twelve hours of combat at point blank range….  By dusk, the 1st Battalion had suffered more than 200 casualties, but had yielded not a foot of ground.”

Along with his fellow defenders of Purple Heart Hill, Pfc Stednitz received a Presidential Unit Citation and the French Croix de Guerre with silver gilt star, and possibly one of his two Purple Hearts. Esther reflected that “until we pieced this story together, nobody in my family knew what my father did.  I didn’t know that his pride in my becoming a Lieutenant in the Navy Nurse Corps was recognition from a real hero. I wish I could tell him how I feel today.”

The 175th Infantry Monument

Pfc Stednitz then fought his way past Paris, through Belgium north of the Battle of the Bulge, and joined in the race through Germany to prevent Russia from occupying Germany west of the Elbe.  He served from the declaration of war to its end in Europe. His first child was born just before he shipped out to England, and was two by the time he saw his father again.

Esther remembers her father as a man who took care of his family with the same self-sacrifice he showed in refusing a deferment to stay with his National Guard buddies when they were called up.  “He didn’t have an easy life, but every morning he made breakfast for us, he took us to school, girl scouts and all our other activities. We complained about our frequent trips to New York for parades, museums and especially the planetarium, but he made sure we had a good life no matter what it cost him.”

Lynne Richardson also came to see where her father fought.  She and her husband also pieced his story together from Army records.  He was 2nd Lt. James Melancon, and he commanded the 3rd Platoon, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in Normandy.  Coming from a family of 13 children in St James, LA, he was accepted at LSU and joined the ROTC. His study of agricultural economics was interrupted early in the war, when all the ROTC cadets at LSU were sent to Officer Candidate School on Fort Benning, GA.  The 4th Division arrived in England on January 26, 1944, on their way to France.

Lt Melancon landed with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry, leading the assault on Utah Beach.  They moved out rapidly to the west to secure the harbor of Cherbourg. After fighting their way to Cherbourg, they turned south and joined up with Patton’s Third Army to break out from the Normandy Coast and start pushing German forces back out of France.

 

German Gun Emplacement Overlooking the Beach

Still in the hedgerows on August 7, the 2nd Battalion was heading toward the German counterattack at Mortain.   Company F was assigned to clear the road toward the German Panzer divisions, and Lt Melancon’s platoon led the advance down the road with the rest spread out in the fields. They were stopped by a minefield which they knew to be defended by retreating German units.  Nevertheless, he was ordered to send a squad to determine what enemy weapons were covering the minefield.

Lt Melancon insisted on joining the squad, and not far down the road they were attacked by German machine gun fire, tanks and mortars.  Most of the squad were killed or wounded, and the casualties lay in the road until the next morning. When the road was finally cleared by a tank battalion, Lynne’s father was found seriously wounded.

That was the end of the war for Lynne’s father.   He spent months in hospital in England, and was awarded the Silver Star for his leadership, courage and disregard for his own safety.  After the war he returned to LSU to finish his degree.

Lynne told me that “Dad suffered greatly from survivor guilt, and always questioned why he came home when so many others didn’t. To some questions, there are just no good answers.  I just know that my mother and 5 siblings are grateful for his life and what he taught us.”

The father of another of our companions, Bruce Blackford, was a farmer in Loveland, CO when he was drafted.  He was assigned to the 104th Infantry Division (known as the Timberwolves) and rose to the rank of First Sergeant before landing near Cherbourg on September 7.

On November 16, the 104th was pushing toward Germany under heavy resistance. His unit had nearly reached Cologne, and was fighting in Eschweiler on November 21 when First Sergeant Blackford was hit by mortar fire.  He was transported to a hospital in England, with his war over. Like the others, Bruce’s father did not want to talk about the war. Bruce commented that he always honored his father for what he did and wanted to learn more about his service. “But seeing what the soldiers in the first wave encountered and overcame on the beaches of Normandy, I am in awe of them.”

Some members of our group remembered other relatives who landed at D-Day.  One had an uncle who was a medical doctor from New York. He enlisted in 1943 at the age of 39.  He survived, but we saw memorials of other doctors who were killed during the Battle of Normandy while treating wounded soldiers.

In the course of the trip we saw the wide stretches of sand at Omaha and Utah Beaches that our fathers crossed through obstacles and heavy fire, the German gun emplacements they had to destroy, the cliffs and steep slopes up which they fought, and in Point-du-Hoc the craters that were left to show how fierce the battle was.  We drove through the hedgerows where Pfc Stednitz and Lt Melancon advanced, and could see how completely they hid the German troops waiting in ambush.

How Far It Was Across Omaha Beach

We also spent time at the many monuments dotted along the Normandy Coast.  Point du Hoc honored the Rangers who scaled the cliffs to silence German guns enfilading Utah and Omaha Beach, one monument at Omaha Beach honored the 1st and 29th Divisions th

at led the way, another honored all the green National Guard units that landed in Normandy, and on to Gold, Sword and Juno Beaches where British and Commonwealth divisions landed.

We visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial above Omaha Beach toward the end of our time in Normandy.  Esther, Lynne and our senior officer present, Joe Sychterz, laid a wreath at the memorial, remembering and honoring their fathers who survived as well as the 31,744 allied soldiers who died in the battle of Normandy.

Everyone I saw had tears in their eyes during the wreath-laying ceremony.  The tears were for the 9,387 soldiers who lay in the graves in Colleville-sur-Mer and the 1,557 whose bodies were never found.  They were also tears of gratitude that their fathers and family members had come home to them. Lynne summed up her feelings as “Even more gratitude that Dad had survived.  Even more sadness for all those who did not.”

Wreath Laying at the American Cemetery in Normandy

Throughout our visit, we were continually impressed and touched by how France has honored the men who died.  Normandy itself paid a high price for the liberation of Europe, with two-thirds as many civilians killed as Allied soldiers and airmen.  Almost no buildings built before 1944 were standing in the cities of Normandy that we visited. Caen, Saint Lo, Le Havre and other cities were leveled by Allied bombers in the weeks prior to D-Day, to slow German reinforcements and supplies from reaching Normandy, and what remained was destroyed in the protracted battles to drive out the Germans.  Showing their solidarity in suffering, the Normans erected a memorial to those who died on 9-11 at a 12th century church in Bayeux that we visited shortly after September 11.

Our final stop was at the World War II museum in Caen. It was an intense reminder of what the fighting was about.  The Nazi atrocities documented there made it clear what our fathers accomplished and why France has continued to remember them.  The pictures of 11,000 Jewish children rounded up and sent to their deaths by the French collaboration government were particularly horrifying.  We learned in Paris that all but one of the leaders of that government were executed after the war.

The photos and records of fighting in the museum provided graphic documentation of the price our fathers paid.  As Esther put it, “My one regret is that I did not ask him, ‘Dad, what was it like?” I see him now with a different set of eyes, and wish I had known what to ask to hear his story.  We will all be changed forever by what we learned here.”

Lt Melancon, Pfc Stednitz and Pvt Blackford did not come from privileged backgrounds.  Yet they did not portray themselves as victims or give in to resentment at being asked to serve.  Certainly they groused and complained like soldiers throughout history. Nevertheless, they stepped forward willingly, then returned hurt emotionally and physically to take their place as breadwinners for their families, treasuring the country they fought for and respecting its flag.

We also reflected that we and our children, nieces and nephews belong to the last generations who knew those men.  Before very long there will be few children of the men who landed in Normandy still alive. The average age of our group was around 70, and after we are gone only the memorials and stories will remain to remind our descendants of what was accomplished here, by very ordinary men who went willingly when called and carried our flag into a foreign land to liberate it from evil.  

Our group spanned the political spectrum, but those differences were submerged in our common feelings about our experiences.  All of us felt some kind of obligation to be here, to follow fathers’ steps, as the culmination of years of study of D-Day, to honor fellow men-at-arms, or to understand what happened. We believed it was an honor and privilege to see these scenes. Even though we started out strangers, each felt the others pain and sorrow, be it for the loss of fathers who came home but never spoke of their pain or for those who still lay in France.  We came to see for ourselves the beaches and fields of Normandy, and we also experienced a time of unity that transcended political parties.

I believe all of us who visited Normandy want to keep on telling this story so that it may not be forgotten and that our country may honor and try to emulate the virtues shown there.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Here We Go Again by David Montgomery

As my wife and I prepare to visit the beach in Normandy where her father landed on D-Day and the battlefields where he fought, we see growing threats from within to the democracy he gave up so much to defend.  Refusals to accept outcomes of elections, physical attacks on dissenting speakers on campuses, ostracism of supporters of unpopular politicians, and disruption of legislative processes all give evidence of a rising wave of totalitarianism that would substitute force for democratic order.  

Demonstrations at the confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanagh are the current examples of the left’s renewed commitment to violent eradication of contrary points of view that has been its strategy since the French Revolution.  Rather than tolerating and giving time and space for questioning and debate of Judge Kavanagh’s legal philosophy, the crazed demonstrators and their abettors in the Democratic Party revert to noise and physical obstruction.

That preference for power over thought, to coerce rather than convince, created the monstrosity in Europe that my father-in-law fought to destroy there and protect us from here.  That was the sad heritage of the French Revolution, but not the heritage we enjoy from the American Revolution.

There is no sugar-coating the fact that we have also had periods of conflict, with violent struggles between employers and unions, slave and free states, and even veterans and politicians.  Some of these were fueled by odious ideologies that in principle substituted violence for peaceful persuasion and democratic processes, but those ideologies never came close to winning here as they did in Europe.  Except for the Civil War even armed conflict was confined to specific locations.

From the days leading up to the American Revolution through the Federalist debates and the adoption of our current Constitution, American leaders relied on argument, debate and ultimately the ballot box to resolve our disagreements.  The Revolutionary War was not driven by a cabal of dissidents willing to impose their ideology by force, but a last resort to resist the actions of a distant ruler. The disagreements between agricultural and manufacturing interests, northern and southern states, city and frontier, and above all advocates of strong central government and loose confederation, were played out in newspapers, broadsheets, arguments in taverns and public meetings, and the writings of literate leaders.

The intellectual foundations of the French Revolution were more romantic and less cerebral.  It broke out in popular uprisings against a weakening king and aristocracy. But civil discourse and persuasion through reasoned arguments were rapidly discarded as ways to decide how to reconstitute society.  Despite the worship of Reason that replaced Catholicism as the official religion of revolutionary France, one faction after another took power by force and executed en masse those who might disagree. Reason was replaced by Terror, as it has been in one country after another in every part of the world except ours.

If we look at France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1933, and Spain in 1936 we see the same pattern.  Each had relatively new, moderate governments with mediocre leaders that aspired to democratic processes – the National Assembly, the Duma, the Weimar Republic, the Republic.  Each was overthrown by a small but well-organized group that was not able to win elections but could apply concentrated violence to take power.

That is why it is terrible to see American elections and legislative debates limited to slogans and shouting down of opposing points of view.  Our leaders from both sides bear a great deal of guilt in this regard. They have substituted talking points and one-liners for explanations of the reasons for their positions that respect the intellect of the electorate.  The big three networks and establishment newspapers encourage this behavior by ignoring any politician who does try to take more than one sentence to explain his or her position. For a voter to find reasoned arguments that respect data and try for truth rather than persuasion requires both expertise and willingness to work hard to find reliable sources.  This weakens our tradition of reasoned debate and democratic processes and strengthens those who prefer force to reason.

Protestors disrupting Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination are not even trying to convince anyone of the reasonableness of their opposition – their goal is to create disruption until they get their way.  They are just the latest example of the tactics of those who boycotted President Trump’s inauguration, the celebrities who advocate his assassination, Antifa in its violent suppression of free speech, the attacks on police rationalized by Black Lives Matter, and on and on. The American left is taking these tactics straight from the playbook of its totalitarian predecessors in France, Russia, Germany, Spain and failed states and dictatorships throughout the world.

The Democratic senators who are now using the disruption of his confirmation hearings to create further delays in a vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination are thereby endorsing and encouraging the demonstrators.  If they had any respect for the democratic process and legislative debate, they would agree to a date certain for a vote on the nomination. That would both declare their allegiance to civil discourse and make the efforts of the demonstrators futile.  But instead they encourage every form of disruption in their extra-legal efforts to prevent a vote they must fear losing.

My father-in-law never claimed any credit for preserving our freedoms or rescuing Europe from the tyranny that its unwillingness to defend democratic processes brought into being.   That is just what he and his generation did. My wife and I go back and forth between being grateful that he did not live to see the current debacle and wishing that we could hear what he has to say about it.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

EPA Gets It Right on Carbon Dioxide from Power Plants by David Montgomery

The new proposed rule for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants is an important milestone in correcting the regulatory overreach of the Obama Administration. This proposal would replace Obama’s excessively costly and legally questionable Clean Power Plan with an approach that stays within the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA)’s legal authority and provides maximum flexibility to state regulators.

The Obama-era Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court because of concern that it went beyond the authority granted to EPA by the Clean Air Act. EPA claimed it was using its authority to regulate types of air pollution not specifically mentioned in the Clean Air Act that it determines are a danger to health and welfare. EPA had previously found that carbon dioxide from electric generators did so due to its effect on global warming, opening the door to regulate those emissions.

What EPA failed to do was stay within the authority it was granted by the Clean Air Act to regulate this type of pollution. That authority is limited to issuing guidance for the kinds of emission control technologies that states should consider in setting emission standards that electric generators must meet.

In every other case when this authority was used, it was clearly understood that states were only to consider emission controls that could be applied “inside the fence” of the generating units in deciding what it was reasonable to require.

In this case, EPA told states to base standards on new and unproven emission control technologies, knowing full well that the result would be standards that could not be met with controls applied “inside the fence.”

EPA did this in order to force electric generators to pay for emission reductions by others, in order to get greater emission reductions than the generators could achieve themselves. That is what the Supreme Court saw as a potential step too far.

In writing its regulations, the Obama EPA largely ignored another problem: the modifications that it envisioned for coal-fired power-plants would also trigger something called “new source review.” Logically, the law applies much more stringent standards to new power-plants, which can be designed to meet them from the ground up, than it does to existing power-plants that can only be retrofitted. But this creates something of a loophole, to do what we do on the Eastern Shore to avoid critical area restrictions on new construction: replace everything that is now there piece by piece until you have something brand new.

Unfortunately, EPA defined a “new source” much too broadly. Just about anything that would make a generating unit more efficient – which means using less fuel and therefore having less emissions per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated – was ruled to make it a “new source.” This meant that the well-intentioned effort to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions could subject the owner to fines, litigation and requirements to make far more extensive and prohibitively costly improvements.

For that reason among others, it was predicted that Obama’s Clean Power Plan would cause many coal-fired power-plants to be retired, drive electricity rates up, and potentially threaten reliability of some coal-dependent systems. These effects, especially if the courts knocked out the ability of generators to buy emission reductions from others, could have added up to electricity rate increases of 10% in some regions and overall economic losses as high as $70 billion annually. This according to studies by the Energy Information Administration and my former colleagues at NERA Economic Consulting.

All these problems would be fixed by the new rule. It declares that improvements in the efficiency of a coal-fired power-plant – known as “heat rate improvement (HRI)” measures – are the best system of emission reduction. This is consistent with EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. It cleans up the guidance given to states and EPA to make clear that they are not to use this authority to force generators to pay others to reduce their emissions. And it revises the New Source Review program to make sure that such measures do not make the unit a new source.

The Regulatory Impact Analysis that accompanies the regulation, like the RIA that accompanied the revised fuel economy standards I wrote about two weeks ago, explains the emission reductions and cost reductions the new rule would achieve. EPA’s estimate is that by replacing Obama’s Clean Power Plan with its heat rate improvement standards and reforming new source review it will reduce compliance costs by substantially more than it reduces climate benefits, thus coming out with a net positive economic benefit compared to the Obama rule.

In looking at how the new rule reduces compliance costs it is important to keep in mind how little even the Obama Clean Power Plan did to slow global warming.
Straightforward calculations using EPA’s own figures for emission reductions and official forecasts of future greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increase show that the Clean Power Plan would slow increases in global average temperature by less than one one-hundredth of a degree (0.01°) Celsius by 2050.

In fact, Obama’s EPA did not even try to justify its rule based on climate benefits. Instead, the only way it could find benefits greater than costs was by claiming that shutting down coal-fired power-plants would also reduce particulate matter (PM) and ozone pollution – two forms of pollution that are already covered by National Ambient Air Quality Standards that EPA must set at levels that eliminate risks to human health.

Think about that.

Obama’s EPA claimed that regulating carbon dioxide would produce health benefits. Then it admitted it could not find measurable health benefits from doing something about global warming. Instead, it added in health benefits from reducing other pollutants that it is already required to bring down to levels no longer harmful. That is purest chicanery. Since EPA is already required to clean up PM and ozone to the point that they do no damage, introducing some unrelated regulations that happen to reduce those emissions doesn’t mean a thing. You had to do it anyway.

Once you eliminate the double-counted benefits of pollution already being controlled under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, even Obama’s EPA could not find an economic justification for its rule. EPA’s new rule implicitly recognizes that you cannot justify climate regulations based on health effects and knocks out a major share of the costs that the Obama rules would have imposed. Good job.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Wasted Outrage by David Montgomery

One topic that has in recent months received far more attention than it deserves is 3D printing of plastic guns.  They are pretty much worthless, so that both the libertarian posturing of their makers and the frightened howls of the hoplophobes are plain silly.  

Throw into the mix the fact that a settlement was reached under the Trump administration allowing publication of computer code for programming a 3D printer to make an all-plastic gun, and the pot boils over.  Not only are reporters and editorialists having hysterics, but judges all over and the Attorney General of Maryland are wasting their time and our money fighting this settlement.

Here is the issue.  The Obama State Department warned a blogger that if he published instructions for using a 3D printer to make a plastic gun he would be in violation of one of its alphabet soup regulations – the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.  That was the first bit of silliness – using regulations intended to prevent publication of designs for advanced weapon systems to stop someone from posting computer code that could have been written by anyone with a course or two in 3D printing at a community college and a working knowledge of real firearms.  That raised legitimate fears that the State Department would classify such common activities as posting a copy of the manual for use and maintenance of a firearm to be a violation of ITAR.

The blogger – who has been described as a libertarian activist – sued the State Department for violating his First Amendment rights. In June the State Department agreed to a settlement that would have allowed him to publish the computer code on August 1.  While all this was happening, a plan developed in the Obama Administration to move export controls on commercially available small arms from State to Commerce was being implemented. And Commerce has made it clear that once something has been been published on the internet, it is no longer subject to export controls.  All in all, a sensible approach which would remove any restrictions on publishing instructions on 3D printing of plastic guns.

On the First and Second Amendment side, this plan makes the issue of prior restraint on dissemination of information about 3D printing of firearms moot.  In fact, even before the August 1 deadline, instructions similar to those that the State Department had tried to stop reportedly appeared on other websites. There was nothing left for either side to fight about.  The Bill of Rights was protected, and the cat was out of the bag in any event.

But that is not how the media and the anti-gun lobby see it.  Since the settlement with the State Department happened in the Trump Administration, it became another cause célèbre for Trump-bashing.

The fear mongers moved immediately to hyperbole and accusations:

Senator Markey of Massachusetts: “Donald Trump will be totally responsible for every downloadable, plastic AR-15 (gun) that will be roaming the streets of our country if he does not act today,”

Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut: “blood is going to be on his [Trump’s] hands.”

As usual, a Federal judge from the West Coast listened to all this and decided that President was again doing “irreparable harm” and issued an injunction to stop the publication of the 3D instructions.

Ironically, the “downloadable gun” that is causing all the fuss is at best a curiosity, a waste of money to make, and far more dangerous to the shooter than anyone it might be pointed at.  The plastics used by home-style 3D printers are far from strong enough to contain the energy of even a wimpy cartridge. A 3D printed all-plastic gun is no more dangerous than a large firework, which is what experts expect most of them to become sooner or later.  A successful product might last for a shot or two, but most are likely to explode in the hands of the idiot who decided to build one.

If the result works and really is “undetectable,” the maker is already in trouble.  The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 made it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer or receive” any firearm that cannot be detected in a TSA scan.  As a result, the design at issue included a firing pin and enough other metal to trigger a metal detector.

Even a tinkerer who wants to make his own off-the-books firearm has a less expensive way to make a superior product.  It is perfectly legal to purchase an unfinished frame for a pistol or even an AR-type rifle because the ATF does not consider it to be a “firearm” until some additional holes and hollows are drilled so that the parts that make it shoot can be installed.  The “80% complete receivers” as they are called are widely available online for under $100, as are the jigs and instructions needed to place the holes and hollows accurately. For the rest a few drills and end mills, a drill press or even a hand drill do the job.

Besides, why would any bad guy go to the trouble and expense to roll his own when far superior stolen guns are bought and sold on the streets of Washington and Baltimore every day?

So the NRA and President Trump (and I) agree with the ban on undetectable guns.  Nobody in his right mind who intends to use a firearm for any of its legal or illegal purposes wants or needs an all-plastic gun.  Even a nut bent on mass murder would discover that a single-shot self-destroying firearm is not very useful.

On top of that, keeping plans for 3D guns off the Internet is literally closing the barn door too late.  The offending bit of computer code is far from the secret of the atomic bomb. Not only are there cheaper ways to obtain a more effective weapon, the code itself is hardly a mystery or scientific breakthrough.  The necessary components of a firearm are few and well known and courses in programming 3D printers are widely available. The result may or may not work, but the opportunity is there for anyone who wishes to tinker innocently or to waste time and money.

I found this topic worth writing about for three reasons.  It is about guns, which is a good enough reason for me all by itself.  Even better, the out of sight reactions are good for a few laughs. But there is a serious point, about how easily people are now gulled into hysteria and outrage when the target is made out to be our President.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Another Victory for Regulatory Reform: Fuel Economy Standards by David Montgomery

On August 2, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) announced revised fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks to be applied in model years 2021 – 2026. The revised standards would replace standards set by the same two agencies in 2012, well before the revolution in oil drilling technology that has moved the U.S. to the top of the list of oil producing countries and caused gasoline prices to fall dramatically.  

The law that authorized setting the 2012 standards also provided for a mid-term review, so that changes that might occur in the eight years between the publication and effective dates of the original rules could be taken into account.  The result of the review, announced on August 2, is that standards will be frozen at 2020 levels through 2025.

To clear up a potential misunderstanding, DOT sets fuel economy standards and EPA sets greenhouse gas emission standards.  But since the two are in practice two ways of measuring exactly the same thing, the two agencies have agreed to harmonize and publish their regulations in a single rule-making.

The proposed standards are good news for car buyers, U.S. industry and the economy.  They are good news for new car buyers because they will slow the rate of increase in new car prices and allow buyers greater freedom to choose among gasoline consumption, performance and amenities.  

They will also make new cars safer.

The proposed standards are good for U.S. industry because they will avoid the shrinkage of new car sales that these adverse consumer impacts would cause.  

They are good for the economy because on balance the reduction in traffic fatalities, moderation of regulatory distortions to consumer and manufacturer decisions, and lower new car costs more than offset higher gasoline expenditures and modest increases in emissions.

All these points are made and supported logically and quantitatively by an exceptional Preliminary Regulatory Impact Analysis (PRIA) that was released at the same time as the new standards.   It incorporates sound reasoning, transparent assumptions and sophisticated economic analysis. It addresses issues such as unintentional consequences and hidden costs that were glossed over in prior rule-makings, and it corrects arbitrary and indefensible decisions such as those affecting the value assigned to greenhouse gas reductions.

The fuel economy standards set by the Obama Administration have been particularly contentious, though the flaws in the entire regulatory system have been pointed out (by me among others) from its very inception.

There is strong evidence that federal standards did little or nothing to increase overall fuel economy once oil prices increased rapidly from the late 1970s onward.  These oil price increases made it in the interest of consumers to choose at least as much fuel economy improvement as the standards dictated.

That is not to say that prior fuel economy standards did not distort the market or impose costs.  The original law mandating the standards created several arbitrary classes of vehicles with different standards: imported versus domestic, passenger car vs light truck, and light vs medium truck being the most important.  This led to a seismic change in the automobile market when sport utility vehicles and mini-vans classified as trucks but functioning as passenger cars were introduced to take advantage of the less-stringent standard for trucks.  In addition, the original rules did not allow manufacturers to trade allowances, so that competitive impacts were exaggerated and total costs to buyers increased.

Passage of the dreadful Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and President Bush’s even more unfortunate opening of the door to EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions set up the opportunity for the Obama Administration to impose standards for fuel economy substantially different from market demand.  Binding standards also create a number of distortions in consumer behavior: switching to smaller and lighter weight vehicles that increase accident severity, increasing smog-producing emissions by driving more because fuel cost per mile is lower, and keeping older gas guzzlers on the road because of increases in new car prices.

It is very gratifying to see that EPA and DOT have recognized all these issues, and have attempted to work within the imperfect regulatory framework dictated by Congress to minimize regulatory distortions and maximize safety.

The original standards would have progressively required greater and greater improvements in fuel economy from 2020 to 2025.  There are three very good reasons why these standards needed to be changed.

Since 2012, the world oil market has been turned upside down by the fracking revolution in the United States, which turned the charts for future gasoline prices from sharp upward trends to flat forecasts.   In January U.S. oil production exceeded 10 million barrels per day for the first time since 1970, and put the U.S. third in the world in total production. This dramatic change completely undercuts the belief that fuel economy standards are necessary to protect consumers from rising prices that they did not foresee when they purchased new cars.  It also substantially reduces concerns about oil price shocks, as confirmed in an independent, scholarly study done by Resources for the Future last year.

Second, more careful analysis laid out in the PRIA reveals that technological opportunities for further improvements in fuel economy are limited, so that manufacturers are likely to have to resort to reducing the weight of even the smallest and most efficient vehicles to achieve sufficient gains.  This then increases the risk of fatalities in traffic accidents, so that continuing to tighten standards would be likely to lead to more traffic deaths.

Finally, the PRIA finds that the expectations of technology improvements that were relied on to set the original standards have turned out to be overly-optimistic.  The study discusses exhaustively how the technology assumptions justifying the old standards turned out to be incorrect. In some cases, it was because the writers of the Obama rule did not realize how extensively some technologies were already in use, and so double-counted the benefits. In others, they anticipated adoption of new technologies which did not appear or which encountered such strong consumer resistance that they were pulled back.  More generally, many technologies can be used to improve fuel economy, or performance, or allow more amenities to be added. Manufacturers have followed consumer preferences by supplying a mix of all three. As the RIA perceptively states, sacrificing such amenities or performance to achieve tighter standards is a hidden consumer cost.

How the RIA values damages from greenhouse gas emissions is also important. The Obama Administration justified tightening fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by estimating the total global damages that would be avoided.  Despite telling criticisms of the analysis done to estimate the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions, the PRIA made only the abundantly sensible change to include only damages estimated for the United States. That, it turns out, makes a significant difference in the comparison of costs incurred in the U.S. to the benefits included in the analysis.  

Putting all this together, the PRIA rolls out 1500 pages of documentation of its calculations of costs and benefits and concludes that the alternative chosen – freezing the standards at 2020 levels – provides greater social benefits, greater consumer satisfaction, and lower fatalities than any of the more stringent alternatives.

Despite the quality of the analysis and sensibility of the new standards, the debate will not be settled soon.  Some economists have become convinced through behavioral studies that consumers consistently make mistakes in buying new cars, and later regret not buying cars with better fuel economy.  Whether this particular form of buyers’ remorse constitutes a market failure that justifies the nanny state telling consumers what to do is another question.

A more challenging problem is that California now sets its own fuel economy standards that are adopted by 17 other states, and the standards set in the Obama Administration were chosen to match those increasingly ambitious state standards.  The new proposal would, if nothing were done about the state standards, create one standard for 32 states and another for 18. Some manufacturers, led by GM, are adamant that there must be a single 50-state standard, and the 18 states have already announced their intention to look for a judge to overturn the new standards.  

There is a simple solution to GM’s problem, because California must receive a waiver from EPA to set its own standards.  The criterion is that California’s standards must protect public health and welfare at least as strictly as federal law, and their standards must be necessary “to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.”  Waivers to allow California to solve its unique smog problem made sense.

But greenhouse gas emission standards – which are the same as fuel economy standards – are not the same.  Greenhouse gas emissions originating from cars sold in California are dispersed globally and have only a negligible effect, if any, on California. Since GHG emissions are global in their effect, none of the geographic and demographic conditions that give California an extraordinary problem with smog apply to greenhouse gases.  That makes the waiver that allows California to set its own fuel economy standards a mistake in the first place, and the logical next step for the Administration should be to rescind the waiver.

That, in addition to the perennial disagreements about the need for any fuel economy standards, would make things very interesting.  Stay tuned.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

 

Trump, Trade, and Negotiating Style by David Montgomery

aluminum

Very nearly all economists favor free trade, and most have been disturbed by the tariffs that President Trump instituted and proposed to escalate. Even though most recognize that many countries — in particular China – do not practice free trade, it is feared that President Trump’s actions could lead to retaliation that would further increase trade barriers and harm all of us.

Thus far, the President has only imposed tariffs applicable to all countries on aluminum and steel, and Canada, Mexico and the European Union retaliated with tariffs on an equal value of U.S. goods. (South Korea, Australia, Brazil and Argentina were permanently exempted) He imposed additional tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods, with the stated purpose of retaliation for theft of intellectual property. China retaliated with equal tariffs on a large number of U.S. goods, and the U.S. further retaliated with a proposal for tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

The motivation for the administration’s current trade policy remains something of a puzzle. At times, President Trump’s statements sound like old fashioned populist protectionism, an affliction that has broken out at intervals throughout American history. At the other pole, his advisors suggest that it is an historic effort to move the entire world toward a much freer system of trade. Most of the time, the President appears to trying to get the upper hand by threatening tariffs in bilateral negotiations covering a much wider range of issues. Sometimes it appears that an amicable agreement is forthcoming, then the pendulum swings to threats of even tougher measures.

Complicating all this is that President Trump does not approach problems in a linear fashion, but seems to favor a chaotic approach using many tactics on several different fronts at the same time. Therefore, he may not have any interest in the predictable outcome of some action, but rather sees it as creating an opportunity to make a gain in an entirely different direction. Rather like the play on which the Eagles defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In order to get a handle on both motivations and likely outcomes, it is useful to distinguish between Europe and China. In the case of Europe, threats of tariffs are fraught and difficult to see succeeding. In the case of China, tariffs could produce some short-term economic disruption, but China is a huge offender in the global trade system and would almost certainly come out the loser in a trade war with the United States.

President Trump has challenged European leaders on many fronts, including trade, currencies, defense, and purchases of Russian natural gas.

President Trump’s trade advisor Lawrence Kudlow has justified tariffs on our allies as an effort to move the entire world toward a system of freer trade. Nor is there any question that European governments subsidize and protect favored industries and impose taxes and tariffs on imports from the U.S. that we do not reciprocate. But it will be very difficult to convince Europe to abandon its statist approach to industrial policy and its territorial approach to taxation.

Those policies are deeply ingrained in European politics. From French farmers to the Europe-wide Airbus industry, the subsidies that Trump wants to change are as deeply engrained as our ethanol subsidies. The VAT system that eliminates taxes on exports and taxes all imports is equally embedded in EU tax policy. Perhaps recognizing this, President Trump responded differently to European retaliatory measures than he did to Chinese, taking no action when the EU put them in place.

Since there are many other issues in play in U.S – European relations, President Trump’s actions may well be intended to change Europe’s position in national security areas or in economic policy toward China rather European trade policy per se.

European countries are not living up to their pledges on defense spending or equitably sharing the burden of defending Europe against Russia. Most past administrations pressured Europe to pay its share and Trump’s efforts are no different, except possibly in how hard he is willing to push.

To make matters worse, by building a pipeline to get more Russian natural gas,  Europeans make themselves vulnerable to economic blackmail and strengthen Russia relative to the rest of the West – including us.

In addition, European countries have not yet made up their minds about whether to respect renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran. Should European financial institutions provide credit to entities trading with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions, it would be within the power of the President to block access of those European financial institutions to the worlds most important financial market – ours. Though not directly related, his rattling the sabers of tariffs could be seen as a signal that he would not back away from that showdown.

Turning to China, the fact to keep in mind is that we import four times as much from China as they import from us.

Dumping – or selling exports for less than they cost to produce – and currency manipulation are often cited as unfair trade policies of the Chinese government that sustain this surplus. However, our issues with China actually have relatively little to do with China’s surplus in merchandise trade with the U.S. The most important issue is probably China’s widespread theft of intellectual property, unpunished if not sanctioned by the Communist Party.

China also blocks U.S. investment in China in a variety of ways, some explicit like regulations on where and how foreign companies may invest and some informal, including the lack of protection for minority investors under Chinese “law.” Chinese courts remain almost feudal in their favoritism toward native Chines parties to lawsuits, especially those related geographically or demographically to the court.

These practices harm companies from all technologically advanced countries that deal with China.

Outside trade and investment per se, China’s foreign policy is directly opposed to U.S. interests. Its patronage of North Korea is the only reason the Kim regime still exists. China’s efforts to expand its influence and territory in the South China Sea now threaten all maritime trade and world peace.

Unfortunately for China, the very trade surplus that Chinese policies have created means that we could do a great more harm to China in a tariff war than they could do to us. China’s economy is in general more vulnerable to an economic shock than ours, and the financial sector that invested in the industries whose exports would be cut off by tariffs is particularly fragile. Inducing changes in those areas is also clearly part of the Trump strategy.

For a while, after announcing the first round of tariffs, President Trump appeared to be developing good personal relations with Chairman Xi and some help with North Korea. But ultimately China’s reaction to the recent imposition of tariffs was hostile. China retaliated with its own tariffs and cancelled purchases of soybeans. President Trump then raised the stakes, proposing tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. On Saturday he moved the number up to the full $500 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S. He is counting on having the deeper pockets in this poker game.

It might not be a risk I would take, but it is not unreasonable for President Trump to use his advantage in a bilateral trade war to exert pressure on Chinese trade and foreign policy in this way. If his actions toward Europe, including proffered exemptions from tariffs, induce those allies to join with the U.S. in putting trade pressure on China, his hand would be strengthened even more.

If tariffs soften Europeans up on issues other than China, that would likewise be all to the good. Serious economic and political risks would only appear if the current rather minor tiff with Europe over aluminum and steel is escalated. That seems unlikely right now, but extending tariffs to automobiles and other goods could start a trade war we would both lose.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.