Monday, January 30, 2017

Is Building a Wall on the Mexican Border Good Policy or Simply Off-the-Wall?

Last week, Trump signed an executive order for one of his most controversial presidential campaign promises: build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. While some Republicans have suggested using a border adjustment tax, the Trump administration suggested putting a 20 percent import tax (i.e., tariff) on all imported goods crossing the U.S.-Mexican border to have Mexico pay for the wall. If Trump knew how tariffs worked, he would know that it is the American consumers that would ultimately pay the tax to fund the wall.

What Trump is pushing for is hardly original. Border walls have been built throughout history, the two most famous being the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall. Border walls are used by a number of developed countries, and are typically built to either keep people in or keep them out. In this case, Trump would like to replace the 600-plus miles of fence that exist on the border (see below) and build a concrete wall, both to replace the current fence walls on the border and to extend the wall to new portions of the border. The idea is to show that Trump is attempting to address the issue of illegal migration into the United States, particularly with regards to crime. What I will do in the proceeding paragraphs is look at the potential costs, benefits, and obstacles to building a wall, as well as the arguments for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, to see if the proposal can withstand scrutiny.

The Extent of the Problem of Undocumented Immigrants
Since the Great Recession, more undocumented immigrants have been leaving the United States than entering it, which negates Trump's claim of "immigrants pouring in." The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended should tell us how much illegal immigration has been declining. Because the Mexican economy has been improving, more Mexicans have been leaving the United States than entering it since 2009.

Let's take a look at some demographics about undocumented immigrants. About 40 percent of those considered unauthorized immigrants are individuals who entered the country legally, but overstayed their visas. No wall is going to stop those 40 percent from overstaying their visas. Let's also consider that only 52 percent of those unauthorized immigrants are Mexican, and that percentage is experiencing a decline. Much of the remaining 48 percent of unauthorized immigrants has to do with the refugee crisis in Central America.

On top of all of this, undocumented immigrants are not causing a fiscal drain, they are not more likely to commit crimes (also see here and here), and they actually pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants are clearly not the threat that Trump thinks they are, but contrary to fact, let's assume for a moment that they are. What else is there to consider when building the wall?

[3/21/2017 Addendum: The Cato Institute just came out with a policy brief that found out that illegal immigrants are 1.8 times less likely to commit a crime than a native-born citizen.]

Effectiveness of a Border Wall
Admittedly, a concrete wall could address some of the issues that come with a fence (e.g., difficult to maintain, easier to penetrate, easier to climb over or dig a tunnel under). One can also find some examples of where walls have arguably worked. However, there are a few considerations to determine whether a concrete wall would be all the more effective than the fences presently on the border:
  • There is not adequate technology to detect tunnels, which is something the concrete wall would not solve. 
  • The opaque nature of a cinder block wall would mean that border agents could not anticipate or mobilize to deal with those attempting to cross.
  • A 2016 Migration Policy Institute (MPI) policy brief looked at border walls throughout the world concluded that they are "relatively ineffective."
  • As a 2009 study from the Congressional Service Research shows (p. 26), building a fence has only rerouted immigrants to enter from less heavily guarded areas on the border. The MPI confirms this by saying that smugglers simply avoid the most heavily guarded areas and cross the ones that are not well-guarded. 
  • There are also the migrants who will climb over with a rope, use underground tunnels, or be smuggled by coyotes. 

Cost of Building the Wall
In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that it would cost about $3-4 million per mile to construct a fence across the border. With a border of 1,981 miles, that would mean that a fence would cost about $5.9-7.9 billion, and that's with figures from 2009. Also keep in mind that those figures are for a fence, and not for a wall. As the Bernstein Group, the consulting firm that wrote up an analysis of Trump's wall idea back in July 2016, points out, $7 billion has been spent on building fences on the border since 9-11. More to the point, this analysis estimated that Trump's idea to build a 40-foot-tall, 7-foot-deep, 1,000 mile-long concrete wall on the border would cost a minimum of $15 billion, but could cost as much as $25 billion. MIT estimates that it could cost as much as $27-40 billion. These figures would fluctuate depending on the height of the wall, the materials used, and the length of the wall, but in any case, it would be more expensive than Trump's estimation of $8-12 billion.

Cost of Maintaining the Wall
Costs of the wall go beyond the initial construction because walls are incapable of apprehending would-be immigrants. Much more than a wall would be needed to secure the border. As Trump's Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, recently admitted, it will also take manpower, surveillance, and there are other security measures. Maintaining the wall would cost an estimated $750 million annually.  Security is tricky to maintain, as this 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service illustrates. Because Trump wants to cover more of the border than is already covered, security will get more complicated and expensive. Since Trump has not made any statement regarding how he is to secure the wall, those costs remain unknown until such a time he reveals his security plan. However, it is safe to assume that it would add to the $13.9 billion already allotted for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for FY 2017.

Legal Considerations
First, just because President Trump signed an executive order for a border does not mean that he can start building the wall. He first needs to have the funds appropriated by Congress. Then there is the issue of private land. According to the GAO, about a third of the land on the border (mostly in Texas) is private land (GAO, 2015, p. 5). To erect the border in certain places in Texas, there needed to be many lawsuits between Texan citizens and the federal government, and even then, there were considerable delays (DHS, 2009) and threats from the Bush administration. Given that Trump wants to develop the wall on Texan land, he will need to deal with hundreds of landowners. And let's not forget there are tribal lands on the border, which complicates things because federal law recognizes Indian tribes as separate political entities.

Unintended Consequences
  • It's quite possible that militarization on the border has actually made undocumented migration more prevalent over the years (Massey et al., 2016). 
  • Mexico is the United States' third largest trading partner. Considering that undocumented immigrants don't possess the threat that Trump perceives, it wouldn't be wise to exacerbate tensions with one's neighbor.
  • While Trump is making it seem like Mexico will pay for the bill, both proposals of the border adjustment tax and an import tax (a.k.a., a tariff) would mean the American people are footing the bill. 
  • As previously mentioned, a border of this length and geographical terrain means that undocumented immigrants will simply re-route their entry into the country. 
  • The wall also has environmental impacts, most notably of adversely altering migration patterns of most animals (except birds).

Postscript: Building a concrete wall on the U.S.-Mexican border is mere feel-good, populist immigration policy that makes certain voters happy because he is fulfilling a major campaign promise. Much like his $141.3 billion plan to deport immigrants, Trump's plan to build a wall makes little sense, fiscally or otherwise. Aside from not making sense, it does not have the popularity that some might think it does. A recent ABC found that only 37 percent of Americans favor building the wall, while Pew Research found that figure to be 39 percent of Americans. Even better, 72 percent of those living in border cities oppose the wall.

If this administration ends up putting resources into focusing on undocumented workers, building a more extensive concrete wall is hardly the best use of resources. What would be even better than focusing on undocumented workers is having our politicians focus on how to improve legal immigration so that the United States can reap the economic benefits of immigration. I could find better ways to spend billions of taxpayer dollars than building an ineffective, expensive, pointless wall, which is why I hope that Congress doesn't end up providing Trump with the funding required to build this waste of money.

For more information, read this wonderful policy brief by the Cato Institute covering this topic.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why Trump's Anti-Abortion Foreign Aid Executive Order Should Make Pro-Lifers Gag

We're not even done with the first week of the Trump presidency, and Trump is off to the races with his attempt to make America great again. Thanks to expanding executive power over the years, Trump has begun to take full advantage of the executive order. One such executive order that Trump signed earlier this week is commonly known as the "global gag rule" or the "Mexico City Policy," the latter of which comes from the fact that the policy was announced in Mexico City in 1984. Per this primer from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Mexico City Policy requires foreign NGOs to certify that they will not "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning" with non-U.S. funds as a condition of receiving U.S. global family planning assistance. This is in addition to the already-existing laws saying that U.S. foreign aid cannot directly fund abortions. Since the Reagan administration, the Mexico City Policy has been enacted by a Republican president and immediately rescinded by a Democratic president once the transition of power takes place.

Before jumping into the implications of the executive order, I would briefly like to take a look at the budgetary history. In terms of family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) funding, the amount allotted has stayed relatively constant in real dollars since the mid-1970s (O'Hanlon, 2009).

While the graph above only goes to 2007, we see that constant funding of FP/RH servies remain up to this day (see below).

In FY 2016, USAID was granted $608 million to provide family planning assistance to developing countries as part of its mission. One argument that can be made in favor of the executive order is that historically speaking, funding hasn't really declined as a result of the Mexico City Policy. If a family planning assistance provider refuses to comply, the funds simply go to another NGO. The historical trend in FP/RH funding illustrates that. However, funding is only a part of the equation.

The purpose of this policy is to not only send a message about the value of life, but also show that taxpayer dollars should not support abortions. It is to show an ideological commitment that the Trump administration does not condone abortion, and is willing to stop abortion. Additionally, money's fungible nature makes it more difficult to determine whether allocated dollars are used for contraceptives or abortion. The Mexico City Policy at least does away with the ambiguity. I will spare us the irony of forcing other countries to encourage more restrictive abortion standards while not addressing those in the United States, but here is the trick question: does the Mexico City Policy actually decrease, let alone stop, abortions?

Just so we're clear, I am a pro-life libertarian, and no, that is not a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, I am going to be realistic here because I don't believe in some utopia in which abortion would be non-existent, much like I don't think we'll live in a world without poverty or crime anytime soon. Whether we look at countries with restrictive or lax laws on abortion, there is still going to be abortion. From a policy standpoint, we can't ask ourselves if we can have a world without abortion because that's not tenable. Instead, we have to ask ourselves whether we want a world that has more or less abortion. Personally, I would like to see a world with less abortion. With that goal in mind, a major metric of good abortion policy is whether abortion rate declines. I am making the distinction between good intentions and good results here because they are all too often blurred when discussing public policy. I am a fan of public policy that has good results, as opposed to feel-good policy that either does nothing to help or makes the situation worse. I had a similar sentiment a few years back when Mississippi tried passing a personhood amendment that would have considered a zygote as a human being with the exact same rights as an individual already-born. Do pro-lifers care more about feeling good about passing uplifting, but ineffective anti-abortion legislation, or does it feel better to have the abortion rate go down as a result of good policy?

That's what I have to wonder with the Mexico City policy. Ironically enough, allowing for these NGOs to be funded, even in spite of their support for abortion, very well might be keeping abortion rates lower than they would be otherwise. Removing this funding does not simply mean no funding of abortions, but no funding of birth control, maternal care, or HIV testing for high-risk individuals in the developing world. Since the funding would be applied to more compliant NGOs, it is nigh impossible to determine what the net cause of lives saved or lost would be. But we could take a better guess at how it would affect abortion rates.

As you can imagine, there isn't exactly a lot of research on something this obscure. However, we do have a 2011 Stanford University study that shows that while President Bush (43) enacted the Mexico City Policy, the policy caused abortion rates in the sub-Saharan to actually increase (Bendavid et al., 2011)! Tangentially, a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute shows how that Ghana experienced an increase in abortion rates when there was a decrease in FP/RH funding (Jones, 2015).

It would be nice to have more evidence on the effects of the Mexico City Policy, but based on the evidence available, President Trump reenacting the Mexico City Policy was a bad idea. Instead of preventing abortion, we now have a policy that, in all probability, will increase abortion. For someone who truly self-identifies as pro-life, policy that increases abortion rates, regardless of intent, should be disconcerting. Rather than celebrate the executive order, pro-lifers need to realize that Trump has done a disservice to developing countries.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Is a Border Adjustment Tax a Smart Move for Corporate Tax Policy?

Since his presidential campaign, Mexico has been a sticking point for President Trump. Trump wants to deport millions of undocumented Mexicans back to Mexico, which would not be a good idea. During his campaign, he also suggested slapping a 35 percent tariff on Mexican goods, which would be disastrous for the American economy. He even wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), although it is currently unclear as to how he will go about that. There is one Mexico-related policy idea coming from the Republican Party that is not Trumpian in nature: the border adjustment tax.

What exactly is the border adjustment tax? Also known as a destination-based cash flow tax, the border adjustment tax (BAT) is a tax levied on imports while the exports are exempt, i.e., the tax is based on where the product ends up instead of where it is produced. The BAT is different from a tariff in that the BAT simultaneously taxes imports and de facto subsidizes exports, unlike a tariff, which only affects imports. The reason that the BAT would be a de facto export subsidy is because imports would no longer be deductible from taxable income, while exports would be. Another way of framing the Republican Party's proposal is that it would convert the current corporate tax into a destination-based flow tax that would de jure tax imports at the proposed 20 percent while exempting exports from any taxation, which would de facto be the equivalent of an import tariff of 20 percent and an export subsidy of 12 percent. This huge tax break for net-exporting corporations would essentially be a value-added tax with a deduction for wages.

The purpose of the BAT is to incentivize corporations to produce and export more while importing less. Since the BAT does not allow for corporations to reduce their taxable income via deductions of their overseas expenditures, the BAT theoretically is able to create these incentives. The other bit of economic theory is that the import tax portion is to be offset by the export subsidy portion of the BAT, which is why some do not view it as a distortion to international trade. While imported goods would initially be more expensive and exports would be cheaper, what would mitigate the distortionary effects of the BAT is that the dollar would appreciate in value. The appreciation of the dollar would, in theory, offset the trade advantage the United States would have. The catch is how quickly or completely the value of the dollar would change to mitigate these concerns. Goldman Sachs found that the dollar would have to appreciate by 24 percent in order to offset the 20 percent tax, which would adversely affect the global economy.  As the Peterson Institute explains in its latest policy brief on the BAT, if the dollar does not appreciate as a result of the BAT, then consumer prices would increase (p. 8), which would be bad for many Americans.

What would be the outcome of such a tax? It's difficult to say because, as the Department of Treasury brings up in its January 2017 analysis of the BAT, the United States really doesn't have experience with cash flow taxes. Other countries already have value-added taxes, which account for goods produced in a foreign country but consumed in the domestic country. That could potentially give some insight (although border adjustments make more sense for a sales tax than a business tax), but applying the BAT in an American context makes the scenario more unique, which is why economic modeling has to be used to make an educated guess. The BAT might work to the point where it can eliminate the incentive for companies to move their tax residency abroad, raise $1 trillion in tax revenue over the next decade, and rectify trade imbalances since more corporations import than export. It's weird to see both the Left-leaning Center for American Progress and the Right-leaning Tax Foundation agree. However, it's also possible that it would drive up consumer prices, mess up global supply chains, stimulate illegal immigration, cause increased tax fraudexacerbate the woes in the global economybring us closer to a value-added tax, make it more difficult to lower tax rates in the future since it would cause even bigger government growth (which affects tax competition), and/or prompt retaliation from other countries, which could either be in the form of a WTO dispute or even starting a full-blown trade war.

Trump is right in that the BAT is too complicated. Given everything at stake, I don't think it's the best way to go about corporate tax reform. If the BAT is created in part to disincentivize corporations from going overseas, how about simply lowering the corporate tax to an amount that would keep them here instead of creating a corporate tax system of exemptions and loopholes? That way, you can get rid of the major distortion caused by the current 35 percent corporate tax that makes corporations want to move production overseas. Or how about trying something else (see here and here)? If Trump wants to spur pro-growth tax reform, a simpler tax code is a better tax code, and the border adjustment tax does not bring the United States economy towards that goal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The 401(k): Revolutionary or a Cause of a Retirement Crisis?

About a couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) came out with an intriguing article on the 401(k), mainly that the early champions of the 401(k) lament what they have unleashed. Their issue is that it was not meant to be a primary retirement savings tool, and that the initial projections were overly optimistic. This ties together with my blog entry a couple months ago on poverty reduction in Social Security, and how we can best ensure that retirees have enough money saved to make it through retirement.

The 401(k) is section of the IRS Internal Revenue Code that passed in 1978. The 401(k) provision allows for individuals to defer a certain portion of revenue (maximum of $18,000 annually) in their 401(k) account. The deferral is significant because the amount put into the 401(k) account is exempt from being taxed. The ability to exempt this portion is significant because in a progressive tax system, it reduces one's overall tax burden and incentivizes retirement savings (the even bigger incentive is the ability for employers to match their employees' contributions). The 401(k) is different from a traditional pension in that it is defined-contribution, i.e., the balance is determined both by the contributions made to the plan and the performance of the plan's investments. So what about it is appealing, and what about it has critics in arms?

The Good
  • Per the WSJ article, the 401(k) has more portability than the traditional pension, which is especially important given that people switch jobs more frequently than they used to.
  • According to Gallup polls, 74 percent of retirees are living comfortably. Even better, two studies from economists from my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, project that 75 to 85 percent of Americans have been adequately saving for retirement since the 401(k) began (Scholz et al., 2009Scholz et al., 2004), as well as this study from Rand Corporation scholars (Hurd and Rohwedder, 2011).
  • As a matter of fact, the Boston College Center for Retirement Research concluded that the shift to 401(k)s did not reduce retirement savings. 
  • A shift toward the 401(k) has coincided with a large increase of people with retirement plans because let's be honest: those who glorify the traditional, defined-benefit plans forget that most workers did not have pension plans (i.e., at its peak, only 40 percent did). 
  • As the Right-leaning American Enterprise Institute points out that since 1996, Americans went from having their combined savings increase from 269 percent to 413 percent of incomes. AEI also points out that this improvement has not just been for the top 1 percent, but for working Americans, as well. 
  • From 1989 to 2013, individuals 65 and older have had their annual incomes increase 34 percent higher than inflation (Biggs, 2013, p. 14). This same paper by AEI scholar Andrew Biggs shows that private sector plan contributions as a percent of private wage sector wages is also increasing (p. 9), and that increase is happening for the "bottom 90 percent" of wage earners (p. 10).
  • I suppose that this is good news because it's not bad news: pension wealth was about 13 percent of wealth in 1984, and it is about 13 percent now (Munnell et al., 2015, p. 5). While the WSJ article stated that there are less savings, Left-leaning Mother Jones points out that there is more than one way to save. When you account for savings and housing equity, the percent in retirement wealth stays relatively stable as a percent of disposable income. 

The Bad
  • The Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 40 percent of retirees outlive their savings, which means the 401(k) does not provide lifetime protection for a significant number of retirees that use the 401(k), which is something with which Boston College's Center for Retirement Research concurs.
  • Individual retirement accounts, such as the 401(k), are subject to both market boons and market crashes, i.e., traditional pensions have more stability than the 401(k).
  • According to Gallup polls, more than half of non-retirees are worried about having enough saved up for retirement. 
  • In its lengthy report on retirement in America, the Left-leaning Economic Policy Institute makes an argument that the 401(k) exacerbates income inequality. 
  • A study from University of Kansas sociology professor ChangHwan Kim found that workers with a college degree are to save 26 percent more in a 401(k) than those with only a high school degree, although that could stem from lower financial literacy or lower availability of 401(k) options for less-educated workers. Part of the solution to help out these individuals is to make sure they have the tools and knowledge to navigate so they can save for retirement, as well. 

Looking at the available data, what I can say is that while 401(k) retirement accounts are far from perfect, we should not cling onto a false nostalgia that traditional, deferred-benefits pension plans were wonderful because they were not. Given that a) 401(k)s have not caused a retirement crisis, and b) 401(k)s are not going anywhere anytime soon, the focus should be on how to improve the 401(k). Just a few policy alternatives I could find: we can provide plan participants with more information so they can make well-informed decisions, give private-sector workers access to the federal Thrift Savings Plan, implement the Guaranteed Retirement Account, caps on management feespermit greater usage of annuities, make 401(k) an opt-out program [instead of an opt-in program], create a lower-cost option for smaller businesses so more people have the option of a 401(k), or modify the 401(k) so that small businesses could join 401(k)s without being considered fiduciaries. Especially since politicians don't feel the need to seriously reform Social Security and its path towards insolvency, we should at least find ways to improve the 401(k) so there is even better hope for future retirees.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Illogic of Hate Crime Legislation

Last week, four African-Americans kidnapped a mentally disabled, 18-year old Caucasian and tortured him for hours on Facebook Live. The victim was gagged, tortured, forced to drink toilet water, and endured racial epitaphs. While carrying out this despicable and sadistic act, the assailants were screaming "Fuck white people" and "Fuck Donald Trump." As a result of this heinous act, the Chicago Police attached hate crime charges to the initial charges. This racially charged crime brings up a question: Should hate crime laws exist?

A brief explanation on hate crime laws. While the statutes vary from state to state, hate crimes refer to prejudice-motivated crimes in which the perpetrator targets a victim because of a [perceived] membership within a given social group, typically one that is perceived as a protected class under the law. These characteristics are based on such factors as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion. Under modern-day American jurisprudence, hate crimes are considered worse than regular crimes because hate crimes are considered conduct that inflict greater individual and societal harm. The biases that motive hate crimes are viewed as more likely to invoke retaliatory crimes, which contributes to the justification of the enhanced sentencing.

As someone who identifies as a libertarian or classical liberal, I strongly believe that people should be treated equally under the law. I know that justice is not equally applied in reality, but I would at least like to strive for an ideal in which justice is blind to differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

My main issue with hate crimes is that all violent crimes are by definition hateful. One is already showing plenty of hate and disregard for the individual that is being victimized simply by committing an act of assault, arson, sexual abuse, or murder. The message that hate crime legislation says is that the identity of the assailant and the identity of the victim somehow merit sentencing enhancement.

If Dylann Roof, the mass murderer of the Charleston church shooting in 2015 who killed nine black people, murdered nine white people instead, the victims would be equally dead. He would have shown the same disregard for human life. Doesn't murdering nine people adequately show hatred? Going back to the recent incident in Chicago, doesn't the kidnapping and torture of an individual already show hatred and disregard for others, regardless of the identity of the victim?

Better yet, who gets to define what is considered a hate crime? Hate crime legislation can be all too easily manipulated to score political points. Plus, hate crime legislation is semi-arbitrary because it is an ad hoc normative judgement that merely predicts which crimes will be pursued most aggressively. It punishes one's thoughts instead of punishing the heinousness of the act itself.

Don't get me wrong: motive plays a role in sentencing because it can be used to determine if the cause of a death or other form of harm was accidental or intentional. Beyond that, it becomes clear if an individual commits a murder, rape, kidnapping, or act of assault or torture, it is a safe bet that hate is motivating the violent act. If we are to get past divides on a racial, religious, or other level, we need to stop categorizing people and work towards the goal of blind justice and sending the message that murder, assault, and other violent crimes are an assault on human decency and justice, regardless of the identity politics of the perpetrator and the victim. Until then, we have legalized the mentality of "us" versus "them," and that is only going to lead to more divisiveness down the road.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Should the Trump Administration Build New Nuclear Power Plants?

Nuclear power plants aren't getting any younger. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average nuclear power plant is 35 years old, and licenses last 40 years with the possibility of a 20-year extension. 20 percent of the United States' electricity, as well as two-thirds of zero-carbon electricity, comes from nuclear power, which is more than the combined 7 percent from hydroelectricity and 6 percent from other renewable sources. The Center of Energy Economics at the University of Texas estimated that 40 percent of nuclear power plants are to close over the next decade due to becoming too old. Due to aging nuclear power plants, there is a distinct possibility that nuclear power undergoes a revival in the U.S.A., especially since he mentioned it on the campaign trail. The question is whether Trump should revive the nuclear power sector. While I'm a bit time-constrained to cover every last aspect of the nuclear power debate, I figured that I ought to cover a few here.

Safety: By and large, nuclear power has a good safety record. There are three main nuclear accidents that have occurred: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Three Mile Island is actually an example of how to contain nuclear accidents with proper concrete containment structures, especially since there were no long-term adverse health effects. An explosion such as Chernobyl wouldn't repeat itself since it didn't have the safety features found in Western nuclear power plants. Even with Fukushima, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that a) there are no discernible health risks for those living outside of Japan, b) there was a small absolute risk of cancer in the Fukushima prefecture, and c) there were no fatalities linked to short-term radiation exposure. In the big picture, NASA found that coal and natural gas are actually more unsafe than nuclear power.

Carbon Reduction: According to the IPCC, nuclear energy would need to double or triple to part of feasible carbon reduction, which would need to entail the construction of 29 to 107 new nuclear power plants a year (p. 564). The EIA also found that the 2040 levelized cost, i.e., the cost of all inputs, for nuclear power are less than wind power and solar thermal energy (p. 17).

Cost: One of the biggest gripes I have with nuclear power is the cost. Looking at levelized costs for plants entering service in 2022, nuclear power is cheaper than wind or solar power, but still more expensive than natural gas (EIA, p. 7). Similar to wind power, nuclear power needs a lot of subsidies to stay afloat. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found in its World Economic Outlook that 21 percent of nuclear power costs are supported by nuclear power, which is only second to wind power at 41 percent. Capital and operation costs remain high without subsidies, which makes me wonder how well it can pass a market test. See more on economics of nuclear power here.

Footprint: A 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor only needs a square mile to operate, whereas solar power and wind power requires much more land, 75 times and 360 times the land, respectively. When looking at the amount of building materials used on a per-megawatt basis, nuclear power also surpasses other zero-carbon options. In contrast, if we were to switch over to wind and solar to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent, we would need an infrastructure the size of Texas and West Virginia combined, as well as tens of thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines.

Postscript: I could go into other factor such as uranium mining, radioactive waste disposal, terrorism, energy security, or other factors, but on the whole, my view on nuclear power is more ambivalent than it was once was. I see its great to potential to be a zero-carbon form of energy with high capacity. On the other hand, it is quite expensive. Even so, nuclear power has a certain reliability that many other energy sources do not. I don't suspect that nuclear energy is going to be removed from the energy portfolio anytime soon, especially given its positive characteristics. As for whether we should construct more plants, that one I am not so sure about, especially with the low cost of natural gas. Since the average plant takes five to seven years to build, if Trump does opt to build new plants, he should get started shortly after Inauguration Day.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Israeli Settlements Are Not an Obstacle to Peace in the Middle East

Israel has gone through a couple of rough weeks when it comes to the international community chiding Israeli policy. First, the United Nations adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which calls Israeli settlements a flagrant violation of international law. I find the Resolution to be more problematic because it berates Israel for "occupying" East Jerusalem, which includes the Jewish Quarter, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall. The presence of Jews in Jerusalem and the influence of Jerusalem on Judaism predates Islam. Saying that the Jewish people have no connection to Jerusalem is as inaccurate as it is asinine. I wouldn't expect anything less from an organization that inaccurately and disproportionately maligns Israel while turning a blind eye to the travesty in Aleppo. The fact that the United States abstained, instead of asserting its veto power, has been criticized as another example of Obama being anti-Israel. I'm just glad that under the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, UN Resolution 2334 is merely a recommendation and not actually binding international law. UN Resolution 2334 also does not replace UN Resolution 232, which is quite frankly a relief, although it attempts to modify it.

It gets even better when a few days later, Secretary of State John Kerry goes on for 45 minutes about how Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace while barely mentioning any culpability of the Palestinians, as if they have been angels all this time. How about we go into why John Kerry is dead wrong in his assertion that Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine?

  • The issue with settlements dates back to 1967. Not only are settlements predated by the Six-Day War of 1967, but also the War for Israeli Independence. Arab leadership had been trying to destroy the Jewish state before the first settlement was even built. Let's not forget that when Jews were forbidden to live in the West Bank from 1949 to 1967 (i.e., there were no settlements), Arab leadership refused to make peace with Israel.  
  • As I have explained before, the West Bank is not occupied territory, but is a disputed territory. Given that Jordan never had legal title of the West Bank from 1949 to 1967 (i.e., Jordan was illegally occupying the West Bank, and whose illegal occupation was formally recognized by Pakistan) and was not legally considered the sovereign at the time, this means that Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the forcible transfer of people from one state to another, does not apply due to Article 2 of the Geneva Convention not applying to Jordan. Even UN Resolution 242 does not stipulate the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the disputed territories, which once again means that Israel is not obligated to completely withdraw. Per UN Resolutions 242 and 338, until meaningful peace can be achieved and terrorism ceases, there is no legal basis to bar Jewish settlers from being in the West Bank. 
  • Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat were able to get to the negotiating table even when settlements were being constructed. Arafat didn't ask for settlements to be halted as a pre-condition for the peace process. As a matter of fact, Arafat signed the Oslo Peace Accord even when settlements in the West Bank were on the rise. There was even a time at the beginning of his term when Mahmoud Abbas participated in peace talks without demanding a settlement freeze. Using the precondition of a settlement freeze really only became prevalent under the Obama administration, and even when there was a settlement freeze in 2009-10, Abbas still refused to negotiate peace. 
  • Israel completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which included removing 8,500 settlers who were previously living in Gaza. You know what that got Israel? Being bombarded with rockets and having to deal with more bloodshed. If settlements were an issue, wouldn't there be peace between Israel and Gaza right now instead of ongoing conflict? Given the vulnerability that Israel would face from withdrawing from West Bank and risking a two-front war, I hardly blame Israel here.
    • In addition to the Israel showing its willingness to relinquish settlements for peace (e.g., 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982), there are examples of Israeli Supreme Court ruling against settlements that were constructed illegally, including MigronAmona, and Netiv Ha'avot.
  • Israel has been able to absorb 1.7 million Arabs into its country of 8.5 million. Aside from the settlers only occupying about 2 percent of the West Bank, there are nearly 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which has a total population of 2.7 million. Israel can handle twenty percent of its population being Arabic, but the West Bank is so incapable of handling the reality that 12 percent of its population is Jewish that the only response is to kick all the settlers out? That's called ethnic cleansing, and the fact that the Palestinians want the West Bank to be Judenrein (that's German for "clean of Jews") is absolutely telling about how the Palestinian government feels about Jews. And you know that if the Israeli government were to hypothetically expel its Arab citizens, the international community would have an absolute fit and call it racism, but somehow, the Palestinian Authority gets international sanction. 
    • Looking back at most of the Israeli-Palestinian treaties, the borders would have been drawn up in such a way where about 75-80 percent of the settlement population would have been incorporated into Israel. 

While it is evident that the Israeli settlements are politically contentious, it is equally evident that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace, let alone the main obstacle. If you are looking for some barriers, here are some of the bigger problems facing the peace process: the Palestinian education system that demonizes Jews, a Palestinian government that funds terrorists to attack Israelis, or how about a Palestinian government that cannot even recognize the existence of a Jewish state? A two-state solution only works if both sides are committed to a two-state solution, and based on this fixation on settlements, we know that the Palestinian government is not ready for peace.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Best Blog Entries From 2016

With 2016 coming to a close, I look back to see what kind of year transpired. I don't do this simply in light of all the celebrity deaths or the unprecedentedly crazy election cycle that ultimately ushered in Donald Trump and a Republican Congress into power. I also look back at the blog entries I have written to see what kind of blogging year I have had. This year has had the greatest amount of readership, which I continue to thank you for. With that, let's recap the best blog entries from this year:

  1. Single-payer healthcare. Not only did I rip into Bernie Sander's plan for single-payer healthcare, but I took a look at the three largest countries with single-payer healthcare, and the results were not flattering.
  2. Liberty versus Security. This age-old argument played out in the form of whether the FBI should have backdoor access to the iPhone of one of the attackers from the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Can we preserve both liberty and security in a digital age? Only time will tell.
  3. Trump and Tariffs. Even before becoming the Republican presidential nominee, Trump's view on tariffs worried me. If he actually enacts the high tariffs on Mexico and China that he was talking about, he would start a trade war that would make life worse off for the American citizens he was trying to protect with a policy that has no real economic basis. 
  4. Transgender Bathroom Ban. A controversial solution to a non-existent problem. 
  5. Brexit. While I am not a fan of the European Union, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will, in all probability do more harm to the United Kingdom than good. Considering that it looks like the United Kingdom is going to go through with it, we will see if the prediction among so many experts plays out. 
  6. Police Officers and African-Americans. This piece parses out that the arguments from Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter have kernels of truth, and the reality is more nuanced than "black people hate cops" or "cops are out to get black people."
  7. The Iran Deal. One year later, do we see the Iran Deal as completing its main goals? In spite of some Right-wing fear-mongering, the Iran Deal is on track to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
  8. John Oliver's Take on Charter Schools. This blog entry received the most views in 2016. While John Oliver has his funny moments, his view on charter schools was half-cocked and one-sided. 
  9. Trickle-Down Economics. Differentiating between trickle-down economics and the liberalized markets that a more capitalistic society aims for. 
  10. Regulating Condom Usage in Adult Films. California attempted to pass a Proposition that would have required condoms to be used in adult films. This Proposition was much more than public safety, and fortunately for the State of California, it did not pass.  
  11. Trump and Flag Burning. Shortly after being elected, Trump tweeted that he wanted to punish flag burners by revoking citizenship, which is such a bad idea for more reasons than one. 
  12. Judaism and Masturbation. In spite of the arguments that traditional Judaism has against masturbation, I found that when scrutiny is applied to the traditional arguments, they just don't stick. 

Happy New Year!