Monday, December 11, 2017

Do We Really Need to Drill for Oil at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)?

The dichotomous argument between economy and environment has found itself in many places, but I was not exactly expecting to find it in the Senate's tax bill. The Senate's version of the tax bill has many provisions in it, including one to start drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). There are many reasons the Republicans could have snuck this provision, but one is presumedly to get Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to support the tax bill. The debate about ANWR is nothing new. It has been ongoing for 40 years. You can read a 1993 assessment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) here to get a sense of how long ANWR has been a political controversy. What is new is that this is the best chance to date that drilling will take place in ANWR. So here is what I would like to ask: should Congress go ahead with approving drilling in ANWR?

The back and forth on the topic goes something like this. Proponents of drilling opine that we only need a small portion of the land in ANWR to drill. Since the environmental impact would be minimal and the economic benefits substantial, there isn't much reason to be concerned. Opponents opine that there would still be considerable environmental damage, and that it's not worth taking the risk to ruin a pristine place of nature. Let's ask ourselves a few questions to help frame the debate:

  • How much retrievable oil is in ANWR? In 1998, the Department of Interior estimated that there is anywhere between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil in ANWR. In 2013, the U.S. Geological Society updated their estimates to 10.4 barrels. The Bureau of Ocean Management made an estimation in 2014 that it would be about 7 billion barrels. To put this figure into perspective, the U.S. imported 2.9 billion barrels of crude oil in 2016. This should give us serious reservations about the myth of how ANWR is going to solve energy dependency woes.
  • How much economic benefit would be derived? According to an economic study from two Yale economists (Kotchen and Burger, 2007), the oil was estimated at a value of $354 billion at $53 a barrel, which is not too far from today's barrel prices (see below). A December 2015 study from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) puts the economic benefit at $39 billion a year (p. 9) while ultimately adding 77,300 jobs to the economy (p. 10).
Source: NASDAQ
  • How much government revenue would leasing ANWR earn? According to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, about $10 billion over a decade for the federal government. This does not count the government's gross receipts from royalties, which could vary from $2.5 billion to $25 billion. Alaska is also expected to gain up to $8 billion in annual state tax revenues (IER, p. 13).
  • How many people visit ANWR every year? I ask this because I want to know how many people appreciate the pristine nature of ANWR. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 1,200 to 1,500 visitors each year. To put this number in perspective, over 4 million visited Yellowstone in 2016 and over 500,000 visited Redwood National Forest. 
  • What is the potential environmental impact? I'm not here to say that oil drilling is without risk. The BP oil spill acts as a reminder of that notion. There has definitely been environmental concern expressed over Congress' recent decision (also see here). Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the ecological diversity in ANWR is unparalleled, which presents additional challenges. That being said, we should always measure risk against reward. Technological developments in seismic computational capabilities make it easier to limit the impact and acreage used to drill in ANWR. 
  • How will this impact the caribou? One of the larger environmental concerns is the impact that drilling in ANWR would have on caribou. What can give us some insight is how the caribou population has been affected since drilling took place in Prudhoe Bay. In 1975, there were just 5,000 caribou. The population peaked to 70,000 in 2010, and then declined to 50,000 since 2013 primarily due to reasons unrelated to drilling. If the past is an indication of anything, it means that although the porcupine caribou are largely located in the proposed land for ANWR drilling, it should not have major effects on the caribou population. 
  • Should we still drill in ANWR? The short answer to this question is "no." This is not because I think the environmental costs outweigh the economic benefits. It is because we don't really need to drill. Ever since the United States used hydraulic fracturing (fracking), we have had such a fossil fuel supply glut that the United States went from being a net importer to a net exporter of oil (see DOE chart below). It is not just an issue of net exports, but also prices. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) brought up in its 2015 report on ANWR (CRS, p. 11), lower oil prices make oil exploration and drilling less economically feasible. Oil prices have not increased greatly since (see NASDAQ chart above), which means there is not much economic incentive for oil companies to drill in ANWR. This is something to consider given that the average cost of drilling in Alaska is 31 times higher than it is in the other 48 continental states (CRS, p. 15).

Bottom Line: If you would have asked me a decade ago if we should drill in ANWR, I would have said "yes." Now, I don't see the urgency since we have more than plenty of oil. As we run out of retrievable reserves, I would revisit the issue. But as it stands, I don't think our response should be "Drill, baby drill!"

Thursday, December 7, 2017

About Time that the U.S. Recognizes Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel

President Trump has finally done something that past presidents were incapable of doing: recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Under the United Nations' Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, Jerusalem was declared corpus separatum, and placed under this special status due to the symbolism across multiple religions. The Green Line of 1949 split Jerusalem into two parts: West Jerusalem for Israel and East Jerusalem for Jordan. In 1967 during the Six-Day War, Israel annexed Eastern Jerusalem, thereby unifying Jerusalem. It was in 1980 that Israel codified in its law that Jerusalem was the unified capital of Israel. Israel presently has embassies in Tel Aviv, but not Jerusalem because the issue is that contentious. If Trump actually moves the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this would be the beginning of a paradigm shift within the international community, especially since many countries still view Jerusalem as disputed territory. The Palestinian Authority would consider a move as a "kiss of death" to the peace process....although, if we were going to be honest, the peace process has not gone anywhere for at least a few years. Did Trump make the right move or did he start something where we're going to look back and shake our heads in bewilderment?

Let's be real here: Jerusalem functions as the capital of Israel. Oxford defines a capital as "the city or town that functions as the seat of government and administrative centre of a country or region." And you know what? Israel fits that definition. The Knesset, Israel's legislature, resides in Jerusalem. The Cabinet of Israel and the Supreme Court are also located in Israel. Jerusalem is the only city in the world that functions like a capital and is not internationally recognized as such.

Yes, it is a remarkable double standard and unfair that Jerusalem cannot be recognized as the capital of Israel. At the same time, is moving the embassy to Jerusalem the right move from a political standpoint? The largest concern about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is that of violent backlash in the Arab world. The U.S. has not moved the embassy to Jerusalem because it has tried to maintain a status of "honest broker of peace." Such a move would come off as pre-judging the situation, which is all the more important since the status of Jerusalem has been viewed as something to be negotiated during the peace process.

Jonathan Schanzer, the Vice President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (and someone who I happen to know), has said that such a sudden switch would shake up the strategic partnership between Jordan and Israel, as well as cause a break in the quiet diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Especially if these countries experience considerable rioting and protesting in their country as a result, it could diminish the "cold peace" Israel has developed with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Even with the Arab world and Europe generally being hostile towards Israel, Israel has improved its diplomatic status with multiple nations. Saudi Arabia's tacit alliance with Israel is especially important with the rise of Iran, which is why Israel can ill afford to lose that.

It is certainly a plausible outcome that Israel could lose diplomatic clout with key regional players. However, predictions of how the Arab world would react range from diplomatic complaints to a third Intifada to an escalation of war. Plus, you already have a region where there are civil wars in three countries: Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, not to mention Hezbollah, Hamas, or other terrorist operatives, so it's not like the Middle East isn't violent already. This illustrates how tricky analyzing foreign policy can be. Even using past behavior as an indicator, foreign policy remains more elusive and speculative than other forms of public policy analysis. I am not going to pretend that I can pinpoint the magnitude of the Arab World's reaction because I can't. I hope that the problem stays confined to a few small protests and some diplomatic squabbling.

What I can say is that we no longer have to deny a basic geopolitical reality, and that delegitimizing Israel became more difficult now that Israel has a more symbolic backing of the most powerful democracy on the planet. Moving forward with such recognition could help Palestine recognize Israel's right to exist, which would, quite frankly, help with the peace process in the long-run. Such a move would not be without challenge (read Washington Institute policy brief here). If you want to minimize outrage, put the embassy in the western part of Jerusalem. Not only has West Jerusalem been part of Israel since 1949, but odds are that it would be part of Israel in final negotiating of any possible two-state solution. If it is made clear that such a move would not prejudice the final status of Jerusalem, if it does not jeopardize Palestine's claim to statehood, and if Muslim leaders' concerns are expressed and taken into consideration, I think the damage would be mitigated. Even with the concerns about diplomatic backlash that I still harbor, I nevertheless see this move as a welcomed step in the right direction.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court Case: Protecting Both Gay Rights and Religious Freedom

In one form or another, cakes have been a sweet dessert that have been used to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. You can tell when times are contentious and polarized when cake becomes a theme fought over in a Supreme Court case. This brings us to the oral arguments that the Supreme Court are to hear today for the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The premise behind the case is that a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, went to Masterpiece Cakeshop in 2012 to buy a custom wedding cake. The owner, Jack Phillips, refused to create wedding cake for same-sex couples due to his religious beliefs. Although another baker offered to bake Craig and Mullins a wedding cake, the couple decided to file an anti-discrimination complaint under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The complaint escalated to the point where the Supreme Court is answering the question of whether the baker had his freedom of speech or religion violated per the First Amendment. There is more information and analysis from the SCOTUS Blog, but what I would like to explore is which side has more merit and what implications this has going forward.

The concern of those in support of the defendant is that allowing for this sort of discrimination will open the floodgates to remove anti-discrimination laws and allow for a "constitutional right to discriminate." Let's look at the discrimination more specific to the case and then let's go more broadly. A wedding cake is not a key component of a wedding. Even if you argue that a cake were that vital to a wedding, Craig and Mullins could have found a different baker. With nearly two out of three Americans support same-sex marriage (see below), it is conceivable that they could have found another baker. As a matter of fact, another baker offered to provide the couple a wedding cake at no charge.

This brings up another question: should Phillips be coerced to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, even though his religious view is that marriage is between a man and a woman? If the answer is "yes" and anti-discrimination laws end up being interpreted in such a fashion, then the government would also be able to compel a Jewish baker to bake a non-kosher cake with a swastika for a neo-Nazi wedding or a neo-Nazi event. An African-American woodcutter could be compelled to create a wooden cross for a KKK rally, or a staunch Democrat caterer cater for a Trump rally. It would mean that Facebook could not ban white supremacists from posting racist dribble. Whether or not the Supreme Court rules that baking a cake is an artistic expression protected under the First Amendment (see arguments for and against), what worries me is whether the government has the right to compel an individual to produce something that violates their conscience.

I made this point three years ago when discussing price discrimination: producers have a right to produce their good or service for whomever they like. If a proprietor refuses to serve a certain clientele, then that is their poor business decision to make. In 2017 America, there are plenty of bakers that will take the business of same-sex weddings because profit motive. If a Christian baker refuses to serve a same-sex couple, that is their right. The reverse is also true. Take a look at what happened earlier this year. A gay coffeehouse owner in Seattle kicked out Christian anti-abortion activists from his place of business. Regardless of how you feel about abortion or Christianity, it was the gay proprietor's choice to not serve the Christian activists.

The ultimate question is how we find the balance. This is a tricky Court case because the Supreme Court needs to balance two major components of a free society. On the one hand, we need to have freedom of religion, conscience, and association. After all, it was the pursuit of that freedom that was the basis of founding the United States. At the same time, civic equality is a necessity for a free, democratic society. Yes, it is true that more and more people are supporting LGBT rights. Situations like the one that precipitated this Supreme Court case will thusly become less prevalent. Conversely, individuals within the LGBT have gone through more than plenty of discrimination. Although there has been general progress towards civic equality, there are legitimate concerns that we, as a society, take steps backwards. That is the quandary: I don't want a society where the government coerces people to act against their own conscience, and I don't want a society with discrimination against an entire group of people.

I pondered this very question of how to strike this balance between religious freedom and civil liberties five years ago. The summarized version is that "your religious rights end where another's rights begin." What this means in this case is that Phillips does not have to bake cakes for same-sex weddings. Although I strongly disagree with Phillips' views on same-sex marriage, it is his right to hold those views. At the same time, Phillips does not have the right to force the government to stop same-sex marriages of two consenting adults simply because those are his religious beliefs. This is where we draw the line in a civilized, pluralistic society. Phillips has the right to bake cakes for whichever clientele or whichever occasions he so chooses. If he wants to lose out on making money, that's his own decision. Craig and Mullins, as two homosexual adults, have a right to enter a consensual contract of marriage. This is how we respect both the civil liberties of LGBT people and religious freedom: protecting individual rights. I also believe getting to know people who are different from you goes a long way in understanding where others are coming from, even if you don't agree with them.

How should the Supreme Court strike this balance? The gay rights movement already won the intellectual argument and is winning the moral high ground. This country does not need anti-gay backlash from this case, which is another reason why coerced nondiscrimination [from the Supreme Court] is not the best course of action in the long-run. I think that both sides have valid arguments, but that the Court should rule in favor of Phillips. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Phillips, it should narrow the scope of the ruling and the exemption (e.g., wedding-related businesses, commercial institutions in competitive marketplaces) as much as possible so that it doesn't infringe on the rights of LGBT individuals. That way, we can protect everybody's rights instead of throwing people and their right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness under the bus.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Repealing Title II Classification: Scaling Back Net Neutrality As a Right Step Towards Internet Freedom

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a swing at the net neutrality laws by releasing its draft order entitled Restoring Internet Freedom. If the FCC successfully votes on this next month, this Order will roll back the net neutrality laws that were enacted in 2015 under President Obama. Net neutrality proponents are bemoaning the possible end of the Internet, whereas opponents are cheering for Internet freedom. Since we live in a world prone to polarization and hyperbole, it's nice to revisit and refine arguments, so here are some points to consider as we approach the FCC's vote:
  1. Title II is not the same as net neutrality. Although defining net neutrality is seemingly elusive, the best definition I found was "the government and Internet service providers providing equal treatment of all data contents, and Internet sites." You can read the piece I wrote on net neutrality three years ago here for further details and analysis. What was done during the Obama administration went beyond this definition of net neutrality. In 2015, the FCC decided to classify Internet under Title II classification. Title II is a classification per the Communications Act of 1934 that categorizes a service as a public utility. The current FCC is looking to repeal this Title II classification and return it to pre-2015 laws. I wrote on Title II classification in early 2015. I thought back then that is was a bad idea to treat the Internet like a public utility, least of all because the Internet is not a public utility nor does it function in a monopolistic market. In its policy brief on Title II (Mayo et al., 2017), the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University illustrates how Title II makes the Internet less competitive. As the American Enterprise Institute explains in its article on net neutrality versus Title II, repealing Title II does not mean the end of net neutrality, let alone the Internet. The Internet was evolving well before the Title II classification came along in mid-2015. 
  2. Net neutrality is basically a solution in search of a problem. The Internet "as we know it" was built without the Title II regulations, and did well without Title II. This is not to say that there has never been anticompetitive behavior. However, the instances of blocking or slowing down service are few and far in between. When attempting to justify net neutrality back in 2010, the FCC was only able cite four examples of anticompetitive behavior, all relatively minor (FCC, 2010, p. 17925). As the Heritage Foundation illustrates in detail, many of these cases involved challengers introducing practices that could have lowered prices for consumers. 
  3. The government still has ample oversight. Net neutrality proponents provide a scary hypothetical in which ISPs block content from its competitors. Think of it as a "Wild West of the Internet" scenario. As elucidated upon in the previous point, net neutrality violations are rare. Even if the FCC stepped aside completely from regulating the Internet, the Federal Trade Commission has both the authority and knowhow to stop unfair practices (see 15 U.S. Code §45). State-level Attorney Generals also can enact their own antitrust and other consumer protection laws. 
  4. Influence on telecom infrastructure investment. Research suggests that in anticipation of classifying the Internet under Title II, telecommunications companies did not invest as much capital expenditure (Ford, 2017). George Washington University economist Hal Singer estimated that ISP capital expenditures declined by $3.5B since Title II became law. Assuming that Title II had an adverse impact, removing should incentivize telecommunications companies to invest more. 
  5. Price Discrimination versus Price Differentiation: Increasing Competitiveness. California Representative Ro Kahanna tweeted an infographic to illustrate the importance of net neutrality. Ironically enough, he showed how repealing net neutrality would help. Why? Because it undermines the pro-net neutrality argument. The proponents complain because charging separately will drive up prices. Let's say that I don't want to have to pay for gaming services. Instead of paying for all services, I can opt not to pay for gaming services, thereby decreasing my Internet bill. By allowing for separate charges, broadband providers can provide customers with more personalized offerings and packages. We have already seen this price differentiation play out in the mobile phone market (Greenstein and Mazzeo, 2006). 

Postscript: The FCC is more than justified in repealing Title II classification. This repeal does not mean the end of net neutrality. Even if it did, there is more than ample reason to believe that net neutrality makes for unsound economics (also see here, here, and here) that does not help the consumer (Gans and Katz, 2016; Melugin and Radia, 2017). Based on the lack of anticompetitive behavior from ISPs and broadband companies, there is a lack of ex ante justification for net neutrality (Struble and Kane, 2017).

What will help out many of the issues brought up by net neutrality proponents is more broadband competition. Instead of supporting local broadband monopolies, the government should get out of the way and allow for more broadband deployment. When compared to the European market, the light-touch approach to broadband regulation has worked well in the United States (see Harvard Business Review article here). The Title II regulations are a major barrier to Internet competitiveness and freedom, and I hope the FCC repeals Title II classification for the Internet next month.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Is There a Such Thing as a Right to Health Care? If Not, Should We Still Treat It As Such?

Health care is one of those important facets of life. It is a vital determinant for physical and mental wellbeing. It is important enough where it is a debate in the United States as to whether it is a right. In other developed countries, the government de jure provides some form of universal health, whether in the form of single-payer, two-tier, or a health insurance mandate. For those who advocate for greater government involvement, the argument is that it is a right, and that the United States should catch up with the rest of the developed world. That sentiment is growing within the United States. According to Pew Research, a majority of Americans believe that the government should be involved in providing health care for all. The question I hope to answer today is whether or not health care is a right.

This is a question that gets us into the realm of political theory and political philosophy, which means that data or studies cannot inform us in a more empirical fashion per se. One way to distinguish rights is to look at the difference between natural and legal rights. Natural rights state that rights do not come from the law, but rather are derived from human nature or a deity. Under the framework of natural rights, they are universal and innate. Under natural-rights libertarianism, for example, the idea is that the individual possesses certain natural rights, mainly that of individual sovereignty. That means that fraud or coercion are a violation of said rights. Natural-rights libertarianism comes with two major flaws. One, these rights are guaranteed according to whom? To G-d? Not everyone believes in G-d. There is no objective authority or arbitrator to determine that rights are natural. There are enough political philosophies out there that could not care less about individual sovereignty, which leads to my second point: throughout history, government has been involved in the individual's decision-making process, for better or worse (usually worse). It is for those reasons I consider myself a consequentialist libertarian, as opposed to a deontological libertarian.

That would lead us to the idea of legal rights, which means that it is the societal, economic, and political contexts that determine whether or not an individual or group of individuals has access to a certain good or service. If rights only exist in a certain socio-political context, then that means that the government can take away rights just as quickly as it granted them. Under the idea of legal rights, it would mean that the right to health care is neither an absolute nor a guarantee. That being the case, this brings up a follow-up question: should the government treat health care as if it were a natural right? Another way to ask it: should the right to health care be a legal right?

Let's start with the assumption that under the law, we should treat health care as a right. To answer the question about treating health care as a right, let's start with a practical series of questions:

  1. How do we define the scope of a right to health care? Does it only entail treatment or does it include preventative health care? If it is the latter, then a lot more will have to be covered than if that right solely entails curing people of already-existing ailments. Do we include experimental or unproven tests and procedures? Should this include such procedures as cosmetic surgery or infertility treatment? The ambiguity presented in this bullet point alone brings up a point: a minimum requirement of a right should be the ability to unequivocally define it. The fact that these questions cannot be answered with certainty tells us a lot about whether health care is really a right. This is also the reason why a positive right cannot be exercised in absolute or can be scalable like a negative right can, but let's continue a bit longer with the assumption that health care is a right....
  2. Who is going to pay for the right to health care? Freedom of speech does not require that someone else pays for that right, nor does it infringe upon someone else's freedom of speech. With freedom of press, journalists don't force someone else to pay for producing their publications and media. Freedom of religion can be exercised in a pluralistic way and others practice their religions without infringing upon others' right to religion. With health care, someone would have to be forced to pay for that right. When looking at it through the lens of individual rights, a right should not be conditioned on an ability to pay. The extent of how distributive the tax system would be to pay for this would be contingent upon the scope of goods services rendered [per Point #1 above]. 
  3. Who is responsible for providing this right? A right to possess something implies that someone has the corollary duty to provide health care to all individuals. With the right to a fair trial, that right is provided by the judicial system and a jury of twelve peers. Who delivers under a framework of health care being a right? Do we force private-sector doctors to perform all procedures? Do we socialize government and have every medical professional be an employee of the government? This also gets messy because if health care were a positive right, then it is an imperative that resources are channeled for that purpose. Those resources include doctors, nurses, physicians, and other health care professionals being conscripted to providing those services. It is unclear as to who holds the right to provide these services, which thereby creates more doubt as to whether health care is actually a right. 
  4. What sort of incentives would a right to health care create? First, let's think of this in terms of consumption. For one, how much incentive would a consumer have to take care of their own health if health care were treated as a right? They could simply get treated if/when things got bad enough instead of taking personal responsibility for their own health. Also, if a consumer has full access to all treatments at little to no cost, what incentive is there for restraint in consumption? Single-payer systems in practice show that overconsumption is a concern. If overconsumption is a concern, then that also means that medical care professionals are overextended. This is not simply a matter of doctors not being where they are most needed. What sort of disincentive would this create for people to enter the medical profession? 

The truth is that health care is not a privilege or a de facto right: it is a commodity. Not only that, health care is a finite commodity, which makes it all the more impractical to define it as a right. Food, clothing, and shelter are vital as health care is, but you don't see universal "food care." As the Cato Institute points out, there are only so many hospitals, doctors, and health care-related goods that exist. Whether it is by bureaucratic fiat (e.g., United Kingdom), waiting lines (e.g., Canada), or by higher prices (e.g., the United States), there is going to be some sort of rationing mechanism, much like there is in other markets. We have the right to use our hard-earned money to seek medical treatment. We should use our rights to help our less fortunate neighbors seek treatment. However, whether we look at it through the lens of natural or legal rights, there is no guaranteed right to health care.

Even if there were a guaranteed right, do we really want government to guarantee that right? We see what happens when health care is treated as a right under a single-payer system: overconsumption of health care, fewer choices, a limit in supply, and most importantly, an inability to contain health care costs. As a side note, these countries with single-payer have as much innovation as they have in the first place because of the spillover effects from the United States' health care innovation.

It might be a more heavily regulated market, but health care is a market with goods, services, supply, and demand.  Having a mature and rational discussion about how to ration and allocate health care is a must, but advocating for health care as a right is nothing more than political grandstanding at a time when we need to find actual ways to make health care more accessible and affordable.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Parsha Vayetze: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right, Especially in Business Transactions

When looking at the Torah, Jacob had a very interesting life story. He starts out as fighting with his brother, Esau, in the womb (Genesis 25:26). When he grows up, he tricks Esau into giving Jacob his birthright for lentil soup (25:34). Jacob then tricks his father, Isaac, the blessing of the first-born (27:34-40). Jacob eventually has to flee his homeland because he screwed over his brother twice. He then works for his future father-in-law, Laban. Laban promises Jacob to have Rachel's hand in marriage if Jacob works for Laban for seven years. Laban pulls off a bait-and-switch by having Jacob marry his other daughter, Leah. Laban then convinces Jacob to work for Laban for another seven years. Amazingly enough, Jacob works for Laban for an extra six years (31:41). During this twenty-year period, Jacob did not receive a raise. He had his wages lowered a hundred times (31:42)! As I pointed out in a blog entry seven years ago, Jacob had every right to be angry for Laban's mistreatment of Jacob. He could have harmed Laban because Laban exploited Jacob for two decades of his life. Jacob's response is interesting. He didn't kill Laban or steal from him. Jacob rebuked Laban. What is interesting about the rebuke is not simply the fact that Jacob did not become blind with rage, but also the content of the rebuke:

Jacob spoke and said to Laban, "What is my transgression? What is my sin that you have hotly pursued me?.... These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I ear rams of your flock. That which was mangled I never brought you. I myself would bear the loss, from me you would exact it, whether it was stolen by day or stolen by night. This is how I was: By day scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night; my sleep drifted from my eyes. 

Laban had accused Jacob of stealing a few verses earlier, but his accusation was ultimately unjustified (Haamek Davar). Jacob unsurprisingly felt a sense of moral indignation. He recalled his hardship under Laban's service while pointing out something important: Jacob never slighted Laban in his business dealings. For one, Laban would have figured out that Jacob was being dishonest because it would not have been possible to have done so over a twenty-year period (Or HaChaim). It was not simply a matter that Jacob did not slight Laban during this period. It is also that he performed at his best for Laban. Jacob made sure the sheep had enough water and pasture so that miscarriages did not happen (Rashbam on Genesis 31:38). Jacob was so exemplary that he made sure the flocks were never attacked (R' Bachya on Genesis 31:38) and Jacob provided restitution even when he was not at fault (Sforno on Genesis 31:39). 

In the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), it states that when people die and are brought before the Heavenly Court, the first question that G-d will ask of us is whether we were honest in our business dealings. This is how important business ethics are to G-d, and fortunately for us, Jacob provides us a good example of how we should behave on the job. If there are legitimate grievances, they need to be addressed. I think that Jacob addressed them a too late, but that's why I said Jacob is a good example and not a perfect one. On the other hand, we still make sure we do our best when we are responsible for others' belongings and business. Jacob's example is great because it is two-fold. One, he did not steal or defraud his employer. Two, he made sure that the business ran to the best of Jacob's ability, even when it was at Jacob's expense. And given that Near Easter law custom absolved Jacob from taking responsibility in the case of a force majeure (JPS Commentary), Jacob's behavior is all the more exemplary. May we strive to be as honest and upright as Jacob was in his business dealings!     

Monday, November 20, 2017

The U.S. Doesn't Need More Patrol Agents on the Border

Since he was on the presidential campaign trail, President Trump has had an obsession with immigration, specifically with regards to border security. Trump already tried building his infamous wall on the border, a wall that will do next to nothing to benefit the United States. But for Trump, building a huge wall on the border is not enough. He wants to make sure there are more border patrol agents making sure that the border stays safe. In January, Trump signed two executive orders to hire 5,000 more border patrol agents and 10,000 more agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Trump might put on this show about how we need more border patrol agents, but the truth is that we don't need more. That's not just my opinion. Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a policy memo saying that very thing:

Neither CBP [Custom Border Protection] nor ICE could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the 15,000 additional agents and officers they were directed to hire (DHS, p. 4).

If that were not enough, let us consider the amount of work that border patrol agents actually do. Back in 1986, the average border patrol agent was making 42 apprehensions a month. By 2016, that figure fell to two apprehensions a month.

Source: Custom and Border Protection (see here and here)

The fact that less apprehensions are being made per agent is not surprise. Since 2006, there has been a net decrease in Mexican immigrants coming to the United States. Having less to do compounds the personnel issues that exist within the CBP. In its recent policy analysis, the Cato Institute outlines how CBP border patrol agents are more likely to get fired than other federal law enforcement agents. In addition to the retention challenges, CBP also has considerable hiring challenges, as are illustrated in the Brookings Institution June 2017 policy paper on the topic.

We can get into more indirectly related topics, such as how illegal immigrants/undocumented workers are nowhere near as bad as Trump makes them out to be, cutting immigration hurts the economy, or the issues behind the CBP's ability to bypass the Fourth Amendment by using the 100-mile border zone. What I will end with, though, is the following. There is no justification to increase the number of border patrol agents on the border. Even if there were, there would need to be considerable reform to address systematic operating issues before having a mass hiring of such agents. In short, the U.S. doesn't need more patrol agents on the border.

11-29-2017 Addendum: This little gem from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows how the resources poured into border patrol agents are not justified from an enforcement standpoint.