The Importance of a Growing U.S. Population

A Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens, has demonstrated the importance of a growing U.S. population and the need for immigration to sustain such growth.[1]

“A decade ago, America’s fertility rate, at 2.12 children for every woman, was just above the replacement rate. That meant there could be modest population growth without immigration. But the fertility rate has since fallen: It’s now below replacement and at an all-time low.”

“Without immigration, our demographic destiny . . . [would leave] us with the worst of both worlds: economic stagnation without social stability. Multiethnic America would tear itself to pieces fighting over redistribution rights to the shrinking national pie.”

However, this “doesn’t have to be our fate. [I]immigrants aren’t a threat to American civilization. They are our civilization—bearers of a forward-looking notion of identity based on what people wish to become, not who they once were. Among those immigrants are 30% of all American Nobel Prize winners and the founders of 90 of our Fortune 500 companies—a figure that more than doubles when you include companies founded by the children of immigrants. If immigration means change, it forces dynamism. America is literally unimaginable without it.”[2]

The importance of immigrants for U.S. vitality was an important conclusion of a recent study of 46 Midwestern metropolitan areas conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a nonpartisan organization. In these metropolitan areas immigrants are helping offset population loss and economic strains caused by people moving away and by the retirements and deaths of native-born residents. In at least one of these metropolitan areas (Akron Ohio) immigrants and refugees were filling entry-level jobs for local manufacturing and food-processing companies that have had trouble hiring for those slots. This will become even more important in the future when many of the native-born workers will be retiring.[3]

Another recent study concluded that international immigration is giving a boost to population growth in big urban areas in the U.S. even as local residents flee for places with lower housing costs. The top beneficiaries of international immigration were primarily major coastal cities, led by the Miami metropolitan area.[4]

A more nuanced view of U.S. immigration is taken by Mark Krikorian, the Executive Director of Washington, D.C.’s Center for Immigration Studies, who would “limit immigration to the husbands, wives and young children of U.S. citizens; to skilled workers who rank among the top talents in the world; and to the small number of genuine refugees whose situation is so extraordinary that they cannot be helped where they are.” [5]

He claims that almost all of the arguments for limiting immigration share a common theme: protection. Even those advocating much more liberal immigration policies acknowledge the need to protect Americans from terrorists, foreign criminals and people who pose a threat to public health. Supporters of stricter limits, such as me, seek wider protections: protection for less-skilled workers, protection for the social safety net, and protection for the civic and cultural foundations of American society.”

Krikorian cites a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine finding that immigration boosts economic growth in the long term and modestly improves the country’s demographic profile as the native population ages while creating a small net economic benefit. But this net economic benefit involves a redistribution from labor to capital.

In contrast to the U.S., Bret Stephens points out, is Japan. Its birth rate is very low. Its life expectancy is very high. Its immigration is very low. As a result, Japan has an aging, declining population. “Japan’s population shrank by nearly a million between 2010 and 2015, the first absolute decline since census-taking began in the 1920s. On current trend the [current] population [of 127 million] will fall to 97 million by the middle of the century. Barely 10% of Japanese will be children. The rest of the population will divide almost evenly between working-age adults and the elderly.”

Moreover, as “Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma has noted, lousy demographics mean a lousy economy.. . . In 2016, Japan’s growth rate was 1%—and that was a relatively good year by recent standard. . . . The average rate of GDP growth in countries with shrinking working-age populations is only 1.5%.”

In short, Stephens concludes, “Americans may need reminding that the culture of openness about which conservatives so often complain is our abiding strength. Openness to different ideas, foreign goods and new people. And their babies . . . are also made in God’s image.”[6]

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[1] Stephens, ‘Other People’s Babies,’ W.S.J. (Mar. 20, 2017).

[2] Another example is New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, whose father, Wladyslaw Krzysztofowicz, was born in Romania (now Ukraine) and who came to the U.S. in 1952 with the sponsorship of a Presbyterian church in Portland, Oregon after he had been arrested by the Gestapo in World War II and imprisoned in a Yugoslav concentration camp after the war. (Kristof, Mr. Trump, Meet My Family, N.Y. Times (Jan. 2, 2017).

[3] Paral, Immigration a Demographic Lifeline in Midwestern Metros, Chicago Council on Global Affairs (Mar. 23, 2017); Connors, In the Midwest, Immigrants Are Stemming Population Decline, W.S.J. (Mar. 23, 2017).

[4] Kosisto, International Immigration Gives Boost to Big U.S. Cities, Study Says, W.S.J. (Mar. 23, 2017)

[5] Krikorian, The Real Immigration Debate: Who to Let In and Why, W.S.J. (Mar. 24, 2017) The Center for Immigration Studies asserts that it is “an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization. Since our founding in 1985, we have pursued a single mission – providing immigration policymakers, the academic community, news media, and concerned citizens with reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.”

[6] Therefore, Bret Stephens asserts that Iowa’s Congressman Stephen King was misguided and mistaken in his tweet about Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders who called his country’s Moroccan population as “scum.” King said: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny, We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

 

Economic Problems Bedevil Cuban Government and President Raúl Castro

A prior post reported that Cubans want greater economic growth and opportunity while also expressing pessimism about that happening. The grounds for that pessimism are highlighted in a Miami-Herald article about the many economic challenges facing President Raúl Castro In the last year of his presidency.[1]

This is the article’s big picture. “Many state enterprises are barely limping along, there are jitters as the economy of Cuba’s Venezuelan benefactor spirals downward, the rules of the road are murky for private businesses, salaries are low, a messy dual currency system still needs to be unified and Cuba is in dire need of much more foreign investment.”

These problems will not be easy to solve. “Many of Cuba’s economic problems are interrelated and the timing may not be good for any drastic moves — especially with Cuba’s relationship with the United States still up in the air.”

Yes, it is true that “Cuban officials are estimating economic growth of around 2 percent this year, but that figure is based on the assumption that oil prices will go up and tourism will keep growing.” According to Cuban economist Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, the 2 percent growth objective is “very ambitious.” He could have said “unrealistic” as His model puts the Cuban economy in negative territory with a decline of between .3 percent and 1.4 percent in 2017.”

Here are specifics on some of the economic challenges facing the island:

Maintaining Exports of professional services. Medical services by Cuban health care professionals on foreign medical missions in recent years have provided the Cuban government with a major source of foreign currency. In recent years, however, this source of foreign currency has declined with the implosion of the Venezuelan economy being a major factor.

Coping with Venezuela’s Economic Implosion. Venezuela’s problems for Cuba go beyond the decline in foreign medical mission income for Cuba. Since last July, oil deliveries from Venezuela have dropped as much as 60 percent. Venezuela used to send crude oil to Cuba for blending at the latter’s Cienfuegos refinery, but production at the Cuban refinery has fallen by half with the reduction in shipments from Venezuela.

Eliminating Cuba’s dual currency system. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso (CP), which is generally used by the Cuban population and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which used by tourists and foreign companies, and the Cuban government for years has had a goal of eliminating this system. According to Carmelo Mesa-Largo, a Cuban economist and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, “In 2016, the budget deficit was 7.3 percent of GDP, and because of the already difficult economic situation, they have had to print money. The budget deficit may be even higher this year — perhaps 12 percent — generating even more inflation.”

Increasing public salaries. “There are constant complaints about low public salaries. A private cab driver, for example, can earn more than a physician or other professionals. According to Mesa-Lago, even though salaries went up in 2015, buying power was just 62 percent of what it was in 1989. Nominal salaries could be increased by printing more CP, ”but with inflation, they would have to raise salaries even more to have real wage growth.” And that could set off a further inflationary spiral.

Attracting foreign investment. The Cuban government has made it clear that foreign investment is a cornerstone of Cuban economic development going forward, but so far investment is lagging. “Diplomats, business executives and members of the U.S. Congress who favor lifting the embargo all concur that Cuba needs to reform its legal system to offer foreign investors better legal guarantees, make it easier to sign contracts and allow them to directly hire their Cuban employees.” The Cuban government, however, does not want to do anything that potentially could be destabilizing and cause a weakening of political control.

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[1] Whitefield & Torres, The next year will determine Raúl Castro’s economic legacy, Miami Herald (Mar. 23, 2017)   Previous posts in this blog have discussed many aspects of the Cuban economy as listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Cubans Want Economic Growth and Opportunity

A rare and limited public opinion poll of Cubans showed strong support for increased economic opportunity and growth. The poll in Cuba was a national random route-sample of 840 Cubans who were 18 years and older that was conducted between October 3 and November 26, 2016 by NORC, a respected public-opinion organization, at the University of Chicago.[1]

Cuban Economic Issues[2]

Many Cubans feel stuck in the current economic climate. Overall, 46 percent say the current condition of the Cuban economy is poor or very poor while 35 percent say it is fair. Only 13 percent of Cubans describe the condition of the Cuban economy today as good or excellent. Moreover, few Cubans think the economy is going to improve anytime soon: 47 percent say the economy will stay about the same and 8 percent say it is going to get worse while 33% say the condition of the economy is going to get better over the next three years,

Cubans have a slightly more positive view of the state of their family’s finances, though few anticipate improvement in the coming years: 24% rate their finances as poor or very poor while 18% rate the current condition of their family’s finances as good or excellent. Nearly 6 in 10 expect their finances will stay the same in the future.

Looking ahead, Cubans would like to see the government focus on economic growth and maintaining stability over the next 10 years. Fully 95 percent of Cubans say having a high level of economic growth is an extremely or very important goal. Nearly as many (87 percent) say it is very or extremely important that Cuba prioritize maintaining stability over the next 10 years.

Roughly two-thirds of Cubans (65 percent) say there should be more private ownership of business and industry, while 29 percent say there should be more government ownership. Many Cubans have entrepreneurial goals; more than half (56 percent) say they would like to start their own business over the next five years. Sixty-eight percent see competition within the marketplace as positive because it stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas. One-quarter say competition is harmful and brings out the worst in people.

Over half of Cubans say they would like to move away from Cuba if given the chance. Of those who would leave, nearly 7 in 10 say they would want to go to the United States.

Other Cuban Problems

Crime is seen as the most serious issue facing Cuba today, with 51 percent of Cubans reporting that it is an extremely or very serious problem. Another 4 in 10 say that poverty (41 percent), lack of internet access (41 percent), and corruption (38 percent) are each serious issues in Cuba.

In day-to-day life, many Cubans proceed with caution in placing trust in others and in expressing themselves publicly. Just 21% say they can always express themselves freely, while 76% say they must be careful in what they say sometimes.

Most Cubans get their news from state-owned television stations and newspapers, Cuban radio, and family or friends. Just 1 in 4 use foreign media sources. But, even controlling for other demographic and socioeconomic factors, those Cubans who access foreign media are more positive about the national economy and their personal financial situations, more likely to be critical of some aspects of Cuban society, and more likely to set aspirational goals such as traveling abroad, starting their own business, and buying a car or home.

Cuba-U.S. Relations

Fifty-five percent of Cubans overall say that Cuba-U.S. normalization of relations will be mostly good for Cuba, while 3 percent say it will be mostly bad. Another 26 percent say it will have no impact. Thirteen percent aren’t sure what the impact will be.

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[1] NORC, A Rare Look Inside Cuban Society: A New Survey of Cuban Public Opinion (Mar. 21, 2017); Ahmed, In a Rare Survey, Cubans Express a Hunger for ‘Economic Growth, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2017); Assoc. Press, Rare Poll Finds Cuban Citizens Favor Better US Relations, N.Y. Times (Mar. 21, 2017); A poll concludes Cubans want better relations between Washington and Havana, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 21, 2017).

[2] See this blog’s posts listed in “Cuban Economy” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.

 

 

Granma’s Positive Views on Cuban Free Enterprise 

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, recently praised the achievements of Cuban “small business” or free enterprise that have emerged over the five years since the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba permitted “economic activity by foreign investors, cooperatives, small farmers, those working land granted in usufruct, renters of state property, and the self-employed.”[1]

In those five years “the non-state sector has grown exponentially. While employment in the state sector constituted 81.2% of the total in 2010, it stood at 70.8% in 2015. Likewise, there were 157,371 registered self-employed in September of 2010, and more than 500,000 at the close of 2016.”

As Raúl Castro, First Secretary of the Party noted at its 7th Congress in April 2016, “The increase in self-employment and the authorization to hire a work force has led, in practice, to the existence of private medium sized, small, and micro-enterprises, which function today without the appropriate legal standing, and are governed by law within a regulatory framework designed for individuals working in small businesses undertaken by the worker and family members,” developing is an atmosphere which does not discriminate against or stigmatize non-state work.

The changes over the last five years include “’pay per performance,’” which means that wages for workers in state and non-state enterprises are increasingly linked to results obtained.” In other words, wages will not be equal, but instead will vary based on performance.

The article also emphasizes that the Cuban “economic system would continue to be based on the entire people’s socialist ownership of the fundamental means of production, governed by the principle that distribution (also socialist) would be based on ‘from each according to their capacity, to each according to their work.’”

These changes over the last five years and into the foreseeable future “are taking place within a reality marked by little population growth, with low birth rates and longer life expectancy, a negative migratory balance, increasing urbanization and aging of the population, which imply great social and economic challenges for the country.”

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[1] González, Small business in Cuba, Granma (Mar. 16, 2017).  Earlier blog posts about the Cuban economy are listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Reactions toTom Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”

Tom Friedman’s new book’s basic thesis: now everyone on the planet is living in a simultaneous age of accelerations of changes in technology, globalization and planet earth and we all are challenged in how we can and will respond to these changes.[1] After summarizing the major points of the book, the conclusion will offer some critical comments.

Summary of the Book

Most of the book describes those changes, but nowhere is there an express “guide to thriving” in this age. Instead the reader has to pick up recommended habits and changes that are sprinkled throughout the book. Here is what I assume are the elements of such a guide.

  1. Understanding the Accelerating Changes. This is Part II of the book. Increasing technology emphasizes developments in artificial intelligence and global dissemination of these improvements. Increasing globalization includes “trade in physical goods, services and financial transactions” and “the ability of any individual or company to compete, connect, exchange, or collaborate globally.” Increasing changes to planet earth include climate change, reductions in biodiversity, deforestation, biogeochemical flows, ocean acidification, overuse of freshwater, atmospheric aerosol loading, introduction of man-man chemicals and materials and increasing human population.
  1. Understanding the Effects of These Changes. This is supposed to be the primary focus of Part III of the book. The major one I found is Friedman’s assertion that there are now international inversions: allies can kill faster than enemies; “enemies” can pose greater risks by weakness rather than strength; there is a rising risk of frail states becoming failed states; and jihadists are “super-empowered breeders” of disorder or “breakers.” Most of this Part instead discusses possible responses to the accelerating changes and effects and his conclusion that “we have no choice but to learn to adapt to this new pace of change” (p. 198).
  1. Identifying and Implementing Responses to These Changes.

Responses to changes to planet earth: we need “a compounding commitment to stewardship, a compounding wiliness to act collectively to do compounding research and make compounding investments in clean energy production and more efficient consumption, along with a willingness, at least in America, to impose a carbon tax to get compounding investments in clean power and efficiency, plus a compounding commitment to women’s education and an ethic of empowerment everywhere.” (Pp. 183-84)

In addition, nations need to learn and adapt, to be agile and adopt heterodox, hybrid, entrepreneurial, experimental measures (Pp. 298-325) and to reverse centralization of governments and increase their decentralization, and the U.S. with its federal structure is designed to do just that. (Pp. 325-27) The last point is repeated in Chapter 7 (P. 201).

Goals for innovation from Chapter 7:“[R]eimagining and redesigning . . . society’s workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics and communities—in ways that will enable more citizens on more days in more ways to keep pace with how these accelerations are reshaping . . . [our] lives and generate more stability. [W]orkplace innovation to identify exactly what humans can do better than machines and better with machines and increasingly train people for these roles.” (Emphasis in original) “[G]eopolitical innovation to figure out how we collectively manage a world where the power of one [person], the power of machines, the power of flows, and the power of many [persons] are collapsing weak states, super-empowering breakers and stressing strong states. [P]olitical innovation to adjust our traditional left-right political platforms . . . to meet the new demands for societal resilience in the age of . . . accelerations. [M]oral innovation . . .to reimagine how we scale sustainable values to everyone we possibly can when the power of one [person] and the power of machines become so amplified that human beings become almost godlike. [S]ocietal innovation, learning to build new social contracts, lifelong learning opportunities, and expanded public-private partnerships, to anchor and propel more diverse populations and build more healthy communities.”

All individuals need a plan to succeed that includes lifelong learning and “self-motivation to tap into new global flows for work and learning.” This is a new social contract where people are hired based upon an individual’s skills, not credentials. “Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be . . . stempathy jobs,” i.e., “jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills.”

U.S. National Government should limit national political campaign spending and length of campaigns; stop state gerrymandering; and impose ranked-choice voting for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Chapter 10 also contains a list of at least 20 suggested changes to federal laws and policies without explanatory comments and without saying whether and how they are related to changes to the earth. All of these changes will require government “to create every possible regulatory and tax incentive for every company to provide, and every worker to get access to, intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants, intelligent networks, and intelligent financing for lifelong learning.” (P. 241)

  1. Reflecting. This is the title of Part I of the book, where Friedman says, stopping “to pause and reflect . . . is a necessity” because it enables you to start “to rethink your assumptions, to reimagine what is possible, . . . reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs [and] . . . reimagine a better path [forward].”

Supposedly he realized this when a guest was late for breakfast at a restaurant, thus giving Tom a few minutes to reflect and relax and then to thank the guest for being late (and thus providing the first part of the title of the book). I was put off by his converting this trivial incident into a significant one that is in the title of the book. Friedman is a serious man of the Jewish faith, which like other religions emphasizes regular prayer and attendance at worship services to provide the opportunities for such reflection, but no mention of that or of his recommitting to a regular practice of reflection at the start of the book. In Chapter 11, however, he says, “we make God present by our own choices and decisions. Unless we bear witness to God’s presence by our own deeds, He is not present. You cannot be moral unless you are totally free. All religions have some version of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  1. Identifying and Honoring Your Anchor. “We each need to be anchored [and enriched] in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities . . . [and to] enrich it in turn.” For him that is Minnesota and St. Louis Park, where he grew up and where he obtained the values he holds today: “I am a socially liberal, deeply patriotic, pluralism-loving, community-oriented, fiscally moderate, free-trade-inclined, innovation-obsessed environmentalist-capitalist,” and “America can deliver a life of decency, security, opportunity, and freedom for its own people, and can also be a bulwark of stability and a beacon of liberty and justice for people the world over.”

Conclusion

Although I am not qualified to assess Friedman’s discussion of technological change, a recent Wall Street Journal article takes a less grandiose view of technological innovation.[2] It says, none of the technological change “has translated into meaningful advances in Americans’ standard of living.” Moreover, “outside of personal technology, improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary.”

The book, in my opinion, was very poorly organized and edited. And it suggests that the U.S. responses to the accelerations should rest on the shoulders of thousands of local governments while inconsistently compiling a long list of things the federal government should do, many of which appear to be unrelated to responding to the accelerations.[3]

After a rather manic discussion of this book on the Charlie Rose Show last November, Friedman made a more effective presentation last December at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum.[4]

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[1] Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations Farrar, Straus & Giroux, new York, 2016).

[2] Ip, The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of New Ideas, W.S.J. (Dec. 6, 2016)..

[3[ Here are two of the many reviews of the book: Micklethwait, The Message of Thomas Friedman’s New Book: It’s Going to Be O.K., N.Y. Times (Nov. 22, 2016); Vanderkam, Everyone Has an App Idea, W.S.J. (Nov. 21, 2016). Unsurprisingly Friedman uses some of the book’s ideas in his New York Times columns; here are two such columns: Dancing in a Hurricane, N.Y. Times (Nov. 19, 2016); From Hands to Heads to Hearts, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2017).

[4] Charlie Rose Show, Tom Friedman (Nov. 21, 2016); Westminster Town Hall Forum, Tom Friedman (Dec.13, 2016).

 

The U.S. Senate’s Dysfunctional Confirmation Process

The recent squabble over new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony at his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee highlights the dysfunctionality of that process. After examining the current process as used for Sessions, suggestions will be made for an improved process.

The Current Process

Every member of the committee is allotted a set number of minutes to make statements and ask questions. The committee chair (now a Republican) opens followed by the ranking member of the other political party (now a Democrat). Then a member of the majority party (Republican) is granted the same privilege before returning to someone from the minority party (Democrat). The committee members also are permitted to submit written questions to the nominee after the hearing.

As a result, the time and ability to ask follow-up questions is severely limited and indeed is sidelined by the structure of the hearing.

In addition, the senators are used to making political speeches and hogging the limelight. Some are not lawyers by training or have forgotten how to ask questions designed to elicit useful information. These facts also adversely affect the ability of a hearing to obtain pertinent information from the nominee.

Committee’s Confirmation Hearing for Sessions

The above problems were exemplified at Mr. Sessions January 10 confirmation hearing by his responses to questions from Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken and New Hampshire’s Senator Patrick Leahy:[1] Here are those exchanges:

  • Franken:CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’
  • “Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
  • Sessions:“Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
  • Leahy: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
  • Sessions: “No.”

Franken’s question was clearly too verbose and difficult to understand and was focused on what Sessions would do in the future as Attorney General if there were evidence that the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the campaign. Sessions’ volunteering that he did not have communications with the Russians during the campaign is now shown to be incorrect, but it was not responsive to the question.

Leahy’s question is better, but is still limited to contacts with Russian government officials “about the 2016 election.” Thus, Sessions’ flat “No” may or may not be truthful in light of subsequent disclosures that he had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.

Committee’s Post-Hearing Proceedings for Sessions

After the hearing, Senator Franken submitted 20 such questions with many subparts, but none concerned Russia. Senator Leahy also submitted 37 such questions, again with many subparts. Other written questions came from four of the 11 Republican committee members and from all of the other seven Democratic members.[2]

One of Leahy’s question (No. 22) concerned Russia with subparts about the U.S. intelligence community’s report about Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016, and Sessions said he had not reviewed the report, “but have no reason not to accept the [report’s] conclusions.”

Another subpart (e) of that Leahy question stated: “Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions response: “No.” (Emphases added.)

This written question from Leahy comes closer to asking the appropriate foundation question, but it was still limited to contacts “about the 2016 election,” which provided Sessions with a basis to interpret that limitation and to say “no” if any such contacts were not about the election as so interpreted.

Supplemental Committee Proceedings for Sessions

The truthfulness of Sessions’ responses to these questions was called into question by a March 1 Washington Post report that he had had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. in this time period. Indeed, this report prompted Senator Franken to state that Sessions had misled the American public about his contacts with Russian officials and that he should reappear before the committee to answer “tough questions” on this subject.[3]

The Attorney General, however, immediately responded to these concerns. On March 1 his spokesperson said that he did have the two meetings with the Ambassador that were referenced in the Washington Post article, but that they were in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump supporter, and that there was no discussion about issues regarding the presidential campaign. The next day Sessions said his hearing testimony was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time” although he was “taken aback” by Franken’s question and was focused on its reference to possible contacts between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian officials. “In retrospect,” he said, “I should have slowed down and said I did meet one Russian official a couple times, and that would be the ambassador.” Sessions also said that the September meeting at his office with the Ambassador included two of the Senator’s senior staffers, that the two principals talked about a trip the Senator made to Russia in 1991, terrorism and Ukraine, that the conversation became “a little bit . . . testy” and that the Senator declined the Ambassador’s invitation to lunch. In addition, on March 2 Sessions recused himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”[4]

The Judiciary Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA), resolved this controversy by rejecting the request by the Democratic committee members for another public hearing and by offering Sessions an opportunity to supplement his testimony in writing.

Sessions did so on March 6 with the following statement after repeating the previously quoted Franken question and Sessions’ answer:[5]

  • “My answer was correct. As I noted in my public statement on March 2, 2017, I was surprised by the allegations in the question, which I had not heard before. I answered the question, which asked about a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” honestly. I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.”
  • “As I discussed publicly on March 2, 2017, I spoke briefly to the Russian Ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016. This was at the conclusion of a speech I had made, when I also met and spoke with other ambassadors. In September 2016, I met with the Russian Ambassador at my Senate office in the presence of members of my professional Senate staff. I do not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.”

Sessions then responded to two questions posed in a March 3 letter by the Democratic members of the committee. The first asked why he had not supplemented the record to note any contact with the Russian Ambassador before its public disclosure. Sessions said, “Having considered my answer responsive, and no one having suggested otherwise, there was no need for a supplemented answer.” The second question asked why he had not recused himself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” Sessions said the scope of [his] recusal as described in the Department’s [March 2] press release would include any such matters. This should not be taken as any evidence of the existence of any such investigation or its scope. Suffice it to say that the scope of my recusal is consistent with the applicable regulations, which I have considered and to which I have adhered.”

After the submission of this Sessions’ letter, Committee Chair Grassley released the letter as an attachment to a press release announcing that there “are no plans to ask Sessions to come before the committee before an annual oversight hearing, as is customary.” Grassley also stated, ““I appreciate Attorney General Sessions’ quick action to clear up confusion about his statement and I look forward to confirming the team who can help him carry out the functions of the department, like going after sex offenders, protecting Americans against terrorists and criminal activity, and stopping drug traffickers.”  Grassley added that Sessions had recused himself as he said he would in his hearing testimony in sharp contrast to the failure of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to do so with respect to investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and classified information found on it.[6]

A Suggested Different Procedure

The squabble over Sessions’ testimony regarding contacts with Russians could have been eliminated by a procedure whereby an attorney on the committee staff with experience of interrogating witnesses would do the questioning on selected topics, rather than having only the senators on the committee do so. The following is a better way of asking Sessions about whether he had any contact with Russian officials:

  • On February 28, 2016, you endorsed Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.[7] Correct? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • On and after February 28, 2016, to the present, have you had any communications, oral or written, with any Russians? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • Identify all such communications by their date, location and the names of the Russians.
  • For all such communications, identify any other persons present, the length of the communications or meetings, state the substance of the communications and identify all documents (including, but not limited to, letters, memoranda, agendas, notes, audio and/or video recordings) regarding or reflecting the communications.

Conclusion

Although this Senate procedure is flawed and should be changed, a prominent New York Times’ columnist, Nick Kristof, asserts, “there has been too much focus on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not enough on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager” with respect to connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Instead Kristof identifies specific facts or “dots” to support his suspicion “that Trump’s team colluded in some way with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election” and supports a full and fair investigation to determine whether that suspicion is validated.[8]

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[1] Carroll, In context: What Jeff Sessions told Al Franken about meeting Russian officials, PolitiFact (March 2, 2017).

[2] U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Nomination of Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, to be Attorney General (Feb. 28, 2017).

[3] Entous, Nakashima & Miller, Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2017); Franken, Sen. Franken’s Statement on Report That Attorney general Jeff Sessions Misled American Public under Oath During Confirmation Hearing about His Contact with Russian Officials (Mar. 2, 2017); Demirjian, O’Keefe, Horwitz & Zapotosky, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from any probe related to the 2016 presidential campaign, Wash. Post (Mar. 2, 2017).

[4] Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General Sessions Statement on Recusal (Mar. 2, 2017).

[5] Letter, Sessions to Grassley & Feinstein (Mar. 6, 2017); Assoc. Press, Sessions Clarifies Testimony on Russia, Says He Was Honest, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2017).

[6] Grassley, Grassley: Attorney General Clears Confusion on Hearing Testimony (Mar. 6, 2017).

[7] Stokols, Sen. Jeff Sessions endorses Trump, Politico (Feb. 28, 2016).

[8] Kristof, Connecting Trump’s Dots to Russia, N.Y. Times (Mar. 9, 2017).

Trump’s Macroeconomic Idiocies

President Trump continues to spout with expensive ways to implement at least some of his campaign promises. He has not yet submitted a proposed budget for the federal government that would reveal whether and how the competing needs for federal expenditures would be reconciled.

So far, however, Trump continues to utter macroeconomic idiocies. Here are a few.

First, he urges unspecified huge increases in military spending.

Second, Trump continues to call for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump initially said it would cost $8 billion and subsequently upped his figure to $10 to $12 billion. Last October, however, the MIT Technology Review put the real figure at $27 to $40 billion. (Editorial, The Costs of Mt. Trump’s Dragnet, N.Y. Times (Feb. 26, 2017.)

Second, Trump has called for expansion of U.S. arrests and deportation of undocumented aliens.  Already such efforts annually cost over $19 billion, and the American Action Forum recently estimated that expelling all unauthorized immigrants and keeping them out would cost $400 to $600 billion. (Iibid.)

Moreover, says that Forum, such drastic actions would reduce the U.S. GDP by $1 trillion. “Farms and restaurants, hotels, manufacturers, retail businesses–all sectors of the [U.S.] economy benefit directly or indirectly from immigrant labor.” In addition, they pay income, property and sales taxes and make financial contributions to our Social Security Administration while generally not collecting any Social Security benefits. That Administration estimates that such contributions annually total $13 billion while only getting back $1 billion. (Ibid.)

Another glaring socio-economic idiocy of Trump’s suggested massive increase of deportations of unauthorized immigrants is its failure to recognize obvious U.S. demografic trends. The U.S. has low birth rates and aging and declining population in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas. Immigrants are needed in those areas to care for older citizens in their own homes or in assisted-living centers of various kinds while foreign-born primary-care physicians already are a major provider of medical care.  (E.g., Karl, Minnesota used to attract more people from other states than it lost to them. Now it’s the opposite. What happened!, Minn. Post (Feb. 24, 2017).)

Third, the recent heavy rains in Northern California and the threatened collapse of the Oroville Dam have highlighted the dangerous condition of many dams and other important infrastructure systems throughout the U.S. and the need to repair, modify and replace many such structures. An expert pointed out, “Most of the dams in the [U.S.] are over 50 years old” and desperately need such work. (E.g., Assoc. Press, Rural California Levees Beseiged by Pounding Wet Winter, N.Y. Times (Feb. 24, 2017); Griggs, Aeschylus & Almukhtar, America’s Aging Dams Are in Need of Repair, N.Y. Times (Feb. 23, 2017).) An objective analysis of competing demands for federal funds should put this demand at the top of the list.

Fourth, Trump also has called for reduced taxes and unspecified changes to health care insurance

Conclusion

From a macroeconomic perspective an argument could be made for a stimulative federal budget with expenditures exceeding revenues. But the Trump proposals to date show no sign of confronting the questions of how much is too much.

There are many reasons to oppose Trump’s trumpeting the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall and expansion of arrests and deportations of undocumented foreigners: human rights, human decency and promoting positive relations with neighboring countries. They deservedly have received much attention. Yet another reason is their enormous cost.