Thursday, April 27, 2017

Trump's "Buy American and Hire American" Nonsense Will Harm Americans

President Trump is hard at work writing up executive orders in the hopes of fulfilling campaign promises that he made. During the campaign trail, Trump had two phrases that caught people's attention: "America first" and "Buy American, Hire American." Trump advanced from rhetoric to action. Last week, Trump signed the "Buy American and Hire American" executive order.

The executive order comes in two main components. "Buy American" means directing federal agencies to comply with "Buy American" laws and maximize the number of American products they purchase, especially with regards to steel, iron, aluminum, and cement. "Hire American" targets the H1-B visa program, which is meant to target high-skilled, foreign labor. Many expect that "Hire American" will translate into less H1-B visas. As stated in the executive order, Trump hopes that the executive order improves economic and national security, creates good jobs at decent wages, strengthens the middle class, supports American manufacturing, and protects the economic interests of the American people. The question here is whether these assumptions are true or not.

Buy American
At first glance, "Buy American" might not sound so problematic because it only affects federal government procurement. The problem with that notion is that as of 2015, the U.S. federal government procurement market size was $1.7 trillion. This market size is a little less than 10 percent of the country's GDP, so it is safe to assume that "Buy American" is going to have at least some effect on the U.S. economy.

I talked about the folly of "buying local" a couple of years ago, and "buying American" is the national-level version of "buying local." First, Trump does not realize or acknowledge the complexity and global nature of supply chains, that six million U.S. employees work for foreign-headquartered offices, or that there is $1.9 trillion of foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in the U.S. There are so many products out that have components or inputs coming from other countries that it is not even funny. Even if it were feasible to identify which products are "100% made in America" or determine how to maximize "buying American," this limits purchasing options. As the Cato Institute points out, when we limit our pool of qualified suppliers or variety of eligible supplies, that means that prices go up (the Association of General Contractors expressed concern about this), projects take longer, and quality suffers. I'm already critical of government efficiency, so it would be unfortunate to see further inefficiency. Plus, since government services would become more expensive as a result, that means the taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for this inefficiency.

We also have to remember that the suppliers doing business with the federal government are, in most cases, doing business with the private sector, as well. Given the complex nature of supply chains and their interactions with other industries, it is more than plausible that this "Buy American" policy would reverberate and have negative spillover effects in the private sector.

Hire American
Trump's "Hire American" aspect of the executive order involves reforming the H1-B visa program, which is for high-skilled non-citizens to temporarily work in a specialty occupation. Since I covered the topic of H1-B visas last month, I don't need to go into much further detail here. What I will say is that although you can find your criticism of the H1-B visa program, the truth is that the H1-B visa program has been an overall force of good for the American economy. We should find ways to tweak the program and let more qualified labor into the United States to help boost the American economy. The executive order does not answer certain important questions, such as whether there will be a reduction in visas or if there is a minimum amount that the H1-B worker will have to be paid. If Trump's past comments are any indication, I would expect less visas and a higher minimum salary for H1-B workers.

Even if you're not convinced that immigration brings greater economic prosperity, how does cutting off a source of qualified workers rehabilitate areas that are economically suffering? Forcing an increase of labor costs without expecting it to increase company costs or consumer prices is the same folly upon which minimum wage advocacy is based. But hey, I guess it's easier to stop talented immigrants from entering the country than it is to find ways to incentivize Americans to learn one of the STEM disciplines. Plus, why not destroy America's reputation as being overall open to immigrants while incentivizing immigrants to seek jobs in other countries?

Postscript: Whether Trump is able to fully enact the executive order, I can safely say that this reeks of economic illiteracy. In a 2017 report on trade barriers, the U.S. Trade Administration stated that trade barriers [such as "Buy American and Hire American"] "distort trade, discourage foreign investment, and lead other trading partners to impose similarly detrimental measures (p. 3)." For someone who is passing the executive order with the intention of boosting the economy, this is an inferior way of going about it. A freer economy and more international trade result in better economic growth and better quality of life. International trade is about cooperation, mutual trust, and peaceful transactions. The essence of free trade is that both the buyer and seller are better off after the transaction. If not, then why bother?

I would have hoped that after hiring low-skilled foreign labor for his Mar-a-Lago hotel under a separate visa program, using undocumented labor to help build Trump Tower, and manufacturing many of his products overseas, Trump would have realized that well-run businesses do not "produce for themselves inputs that they can acquire from others at a lower cost." Trump would have also realized by now that consumers do not care so much about where a good or laborer comes from. After working in the world of market research, what I can tell you is that consumers are primarily concerned about finding the best combination of price and quality. For the vast majority of consumers, anything else is a minor concern in comparison. Acquiring the best combination of price and quality is what drives competition, which in turn, drives greater productivity. I wish Trump were guided by business acumen from the aforementioned examples instead of his own political rhetoric, but alas, here we are.

At best, this executive order is a pedantic attempt at political showmanship to show how patriotic Trump is. Assuming Trump is actually able enforce "Buy American and Hire American," it will make government services more expensive, will kill jobs, reduce the wellbeing of Americans, and limit economic freedoms.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Gay Concentration Camps in Chechnya: Let's Not Forget What Happened During the Holocaust

Never again. It was a rally cry that reverberated throughout the Jewish world after World War II to remind us the atrocities that happened during the Holocaust. Hitler primarily targeted the Jewish people in such a way where he murdered six million Jews, or what was considered about a third of the Jewish population at the time. It has made its mark on the Jewish psyche for the past seventy-plus years. As much as Hitler wanted to see the Jewish people wiped off the face of the planet, and as much as the Jews were disproportionately affected by the Holocaust, the Jews were not the only group targeted. The Nazi government targeted another group of individuals: homosexuals. As the United States Holocaust Museum points out, the Nazi government wanted to stamp out the "vice of homosexuality" in order to bring about racial purity. Homosexuals under the Nazi regime were arrested, and many were sent to concentration camps.

As much as sending homosexuals to concentration camps seems like a relic of the past, the sad truth is that it is happening right now in Chechnya. Since February 2017, the Chechen government has detained 100 individuals that it suspects of being homosexual, some of whom have been tortured and killed. As if the reports of the concentration camp-style prisons isn't enough, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov reportedly said that he wanted to completely cleanse Chechnya of LGBT individuals by Ramadan, which is May 26.    

This would be the first concentration camp for homosexuals since Nazi Germany, which is more all the sobering considering that today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (יום השואה). This is the year 2017. World War II ended 72 years ago, and yet you would think the world would have learned by now that detaining, torturing, and killing people simply for being different is a gross human rights violation.

I know that after the horrors that the Nazis unleashed, there have been more mass killings: Rwanda, Kosovo, Cambodia, the list goes on. I would like to hope that the phrase "Never Again" can have some bearing on our lives instead of being a hollow slogan. Exerting enough pressure to stop this atrocity is no easy task. However, just because the vast majority of us are not high-level politicians does not mean we can at least do something towards helping. Here are a few ideas:

  • The Russian LGBT Network is the main NGO that is working on getting LGBT Chechens evacuated so they don't get arrested by the Chechen government. A donation to this organization (see here and here) would go a long way. Canadian LGBT NGO Rainbow Railroad is also offering to help the Russian LGBT Network. 
  • Since the Russian economy is heavily dependent on oil revenues, asking oil companies, many of whom have protections for the LGBT employees, to put pressure on the Russian government could also help. 
  • Sign this petition that asks the Russian Prosecutor to investigate the atrocities (or you can Tweet him). 
  • Many gay men who are attacked in Russia and Chechnya are targeted on such LGBT apps as Grindr and Hornet by criminals who pose as gay men. You can urge the owners of these apps to send warnings to their Russian users. 
  • Share pictures of the state-sponsored terrorism on Instagram and tag Kadyrov
  • If you're able, go to your nearest Russian embassy and protest. Alternatively, you can contact your local Russian embassy and ask them to investigate. 

Holocaust Remembrance Day is not only a time to remember those who perished during the Holocaust, but also to do our utmost to help those under oppressive regimes. We should take this as a time to remember that anti-Semitism does still exist, and how we should be vigilant against such hatred. However, we also need to remember that unchecked racism does not just affect the Jewish people. We should remind ourselves that dehumanizing others, regardless of religion, race, gender, political beliefs, or sexual orientation, is a blemish on humanity. Our thoughts, words, and deeds should reflect that "Never Again" truly means that we believe in freedom for all. We should do whatever we can to challenge this inhumanity. To close with the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemoller:

"First, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me." 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Parsha Shemini: Jews Allowed to Eat Pork? When Pigs Fly!

In this week's Torah portion, G-d provides guidance on Jewish dietary law, or kashrut, in Leviticus 11. The chapter talks about the number of animals, including fish, birds, and yes, pigs:

ואת החזיר כי מפריס פרסה הוא, ושסע שסע פרסה, והוא גרה לא יגר. טמא הוא לכם.
-And the pig, because its has a split hoof and doesn't regurgitate its own cud; it is unclean. -Leviticus 11:7

In an earlier passage, the Torah teaches that a kosher animal is one that has split hooves and chews its own cud (Leviticus 11:3). Since the pig only violates one of two of the criteria, you would think that the pig would not be as bad as the animals that violate both criteria. Yet the pig is so disdained by traditional Jews, and the prohibition of its consumption is well-known by Jew and non-Jew alike. Why is the pig so infamous?
  • One explanation can be was the pig was historically a source of food that was in high supply. Some think that the pig, unlike other non-kosher farm animals, only serves the purpose of being killed and eaten, which is to be considered abhorrent. 
  • Perhaps it was because pigs played a prominent role in idolatrous worship (Rambam). 
  • The pig can represent the conflation between material and spiritual attainment. 
  • The pig is the only animal with split hooves, but does not chew its cud. When the pig stretches out his legs and displays his hooves, it seems to say "Look how kosher I am" while not mentioning that it chews cud. This is the sign of someone who is a hypocrite or acts externally pious while hiding flaws (Leviticus Rabbah 13:5). This interpretation teaches us to avoid deceit and hypocrisy. 
    • R. Meir of Premishlan took the analogy from Leviticus Rabbah the following way. He said that the pig, who acts externally pious but is internally vapid, is one who does not properly fulfill the mitzvah. Sure, it's nice if someone invites you to their home for a meal, but if they leave hungry or they're embarrassed at some point in the evening, then it was not a proper mitzvah. Or to frame this slightly differently, even good intentions don't mean much if the end-result of the mitzvah was not good, which is why we have to be mindful of when helping others out and make sure that is in accordance with their needs and not our perception of their needs. 
  • R. Chayim ibn Abtr (Or HaChayim, Lev. 11:7) was under the impression that during the Messianic era, the pig would evolve and produce the ability to chew its cud, thereby becoming a kosher animal. This ability to change is meant to teach us about how we can return to the inherent good that G-d has bestowed in each of us. 
  • R. Yissocher Frand made an interesting point about word order in the verse. He pointed out that the Torah points out the split hooves (the kosher aspect) before pointing out that it doesn't chew its own cud (the non-kosher aspect). What this is meant to teach is that even if someone is still very flawed, we should not only point out their positive attributes, but emphasize them before getting into flaws.  
We are what we eat, and these insights teach us how ritual reflects great spiritual truths. We are meant to make sure that our behavior is consistent. When dealing with others, we make sure we do our best to treat people like human beings, see the good they have to offer, and realize that even those who are flawed have the potential to change. By not eating pig, the prohibition reminds Jews how to reach our spiritual maximum.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

United Airlines' Fiasco and Why We Need Greater Airline Competition

Saying that United Airlines had a bad week last week is an understatement. Last Sunday, United Flight 3411 was ready for takeoff from Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The passengers boarded, but United attempted to accommodate four United employees that they were looking to board last-minute. With the four employees, the flight had more passengers than seats. United tried asking passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. They then asked Dr. David Dao, a 69-year old doctor who was looking to get back to Kentucky to tend to patients the following morning. Dao, who was a paying customer who had already boarded the plane, was then forcibly dragged off the plane, and suffered a concussion, had a broken nose and sinuses, and lost two teeth. It looks like Dao has a strong enough case to sue. This sort of abuse of passengers leaves us understandably upset, even if United ended up changing its policy on displacing customers. And if that debacle weren't enough, a passenger on a United flight was stung by a scorpion that fell out of an overhead bin.

United's stock only dropped four percent since the Dao debacle, which looking at its stock history, is not a huge decline. Even so, it has only been a week, it is too soon to tell how the transpired events will effect United's long-term stance. I could say that our media-saturated world will leave us forgetting this incident in a matter of weeks (if not sooner) because of a quick news-cycle, and United will be back to "business as usual." You could think that people will massively boycott United because of its unacceptable treatment of Dao. As I pointed out three years ago, boycotts work best when they are targeted, massive, and last long enough to do damage. A successful boycott of United gets more complicated when considering the consolidated nature of the airline market. Over the past decade, airline companies have merged and acquired to boost its market share. As the Washington Post points out, there are over 10 major airports where United has 10 percent or more of the airport's market share. For Houston and Newark, United accounts for over half of their airports' travel (see Department of Transportation [DoT] statistics here). The airline industry is an oligopoly, which means that the market is dominated by a small number of sellers. 80 percent of flights are carried out by four major carriers: American, Delta, Southwest, and United (see below, as well as DoT stats). Because there are few alternatives for customers, United does not care nearly as much about customer service or satisfaction as a seller would in a different market.

If a boycott is going to do next to nothing to stop the oligopolistic beast, then what would be more effective? We need to make the airline industry more competitive because there are more efficiency gains, prices go down, and quality goes up (Gil and Kim, 2016Snider and Williams, 2011). One solution that tends to be popular on the Left is "break up the monopolies." As the DoT data show, there are not monopolies or near-monopolies. Sure, there are airports that have high enough market concentration at certain airports, but that doesn't constitute as a monopoly. Obama's Department of Justice went through a lengthy investigation, and found that the airlines weren't colluding, which also helps. The airline industry is more competitive than governments are, but less so than most private-sector markets. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the number of competitors really didn't shift all that much from 2007 to 2012, which is significant considering that is when United acquired Continental (see below).

If we want to think of ways to improve competitiveness in the airline market, here is an alternative to breaking up monopolies. Foreign airlines are presently not able to fly domestic routes. Instead of having this insidious law, how about bringing in competition by letting foreign airlines fly our friendly skies? As the Cato Institute illustrates, privatizing airports can be another route. A couple years ago, I brought up the idea of privatizing air traffic control. Here are a couple more examples of the FAA getting in the way of airline innovations.

While I presented some good and bad alternatives, the practical consideration is whether anything will actually be done to improve airline competitiveness. My answer to that question is "no." The oligopolistic nature of the airline makes boycotting all the more challenging. We currently have a protectionist, populist president who is interested in "America First," which means we probably won't see foreign airlines fly domestic routes anytime soon. The Trump administration also has not indicated that it is looking to improve upon competitiveness in the airline industry. Irrespective of the Trump administration's present stance on the issue (or lack thereof), Trump should focus on airline competitiveness and make flying great again.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Trump's Half-Cocked Missile Attack on Syria and Why We Should Worry

During his presidential campaign, President Trump said that we should focused on ISIS instead of Syria. He stated that we should get out of the nation-building business because it tore up what institutions existed in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sent the message that a vote for Hillary Clinton would have meant military conflict in Syria, which would have triggered World War III. Not even 100 days into his presidency and Trump has done what he lambasted Clinton for contemplating. Last Thursday, Trump ordered a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield that was alleged to have been the base for a chemical weapons attack that the Syrian government perpetrated against Syrian citizens earlier last week. President Bashar al-Assad's attack last week is hardly the first time he has committed heinous crimes against his own people. It is part of an ongoing civil war that has been going on for nearly six years. Essentially, Syria got swept up in the 2011 Arab Spring protests and expressed discontent with the despotic al-Assad regime. Those protests escalated to military action since the protests were attempting to usurp al-Assad. Since then, opposition has arisen in Syria and not only created a divided Syria, but has strengthened the Islamo-fascist group ISIS. The Syrian Civil War has not only had repercussions in Syria, but also in Iraq, other neighboring countries that have had to take in refugees, and even in Europe, where the refugee influx has caused a rise in Far-Right populism and nationalism.

There are two main reasons why proponents would be happy with such an attack on the Syrian military: national security and humanitarian reasons. After the attack, Trump stated that "it is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons." Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that the United States can no longer idly stand by as atrocities are carried out against the Syrian people, and as such, Trump made a justified attack on the Syrian military. Even some Democrats are happy with Trump's attack on Syria. By drawing the red line, Trump made it clear that he supports the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The act might not only act as a deterrent for Syria, but other major powers (e.g., Russia, China) might think twice before messing with the United States of America. Although Assad is a sadistic tyrant that the world can live without, I wonder if this is justification for Trump's missile attack or even further military intervention in Syria.

First, there is the question of how launching missiles onto a military base can be construed as providing humanitarian relief. Hitting a single military base while having zero effect on regime change or altering Assad policy does not do any favors to mitigate the plight of the Syrian citizenry. It only acts as a hollow, symbolic gesture, especially considering that planes were taking off from the airbase just hours later. And what if Assad uses chemical weapons on his citizens again? Will Trump respond with more military action, or will Assad call Trump's bluff?

Second, if the attack is in response to the chemical attack from Assad, it ignores the number of citizens not killed by chemical warfare. In February 2017 alone, which was Trump's first full month in office, there were 1,298 deaths caused by the Syrian Civil War, the vast majority of which were caused by conventional means. None of this considers the thousands that have died at the hands of the Assad regime through conventional means. Why is it that the thousands of people killed by conventional means does not merit Trump's attention or action, but the use of chemical warfare on less than 100 people does? Is it okay to kill your citizens only if they kill with standard munitions? An even better question: why was Trump against intervening in 2013 when chemical attacks were an issue, but suddenly is for it? For a president who claims "America First," he has yet to show how intervening in Syria is a vital interest or how Syria is an existential threat to the United States' people, freedoms, economic security, or territory, which is something he can't do because Syria does not pose that level of threat. The argument is that "Assad is a bad dictator who does bad things." If that's the logic and basis we're going off of, then the United States would need to intervene in every country that has oppressive regimes, which are the numerous purple countries in the map below.

Source: Freedom House

Third, I have to wonder about timing of the U.S. military to attack. Obama was contemplating attacking Syria four years ago, especially since he made that untenable statement about how he would draw a red line on Syria using chemical weapons. His failure in Libya, as well as the lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped his thinking. Instead of further military attacks, he took a more diplomatic and coordinated approach, which at least resulted in Assad not using chemical attacks during the remainder of the Obama administration. Intervention would have been easier four years ago when Obama was contemplating it than it would be now for two main reasons: 1) the Assad regime was not as fortified or powerful as it is now, and 2) Russia has ground and air forces supporting the Assad regime.

Fourth is the lack of a legal basis for the attack, and that's not solely based on whether a president needs congressional authorization prior to making such an attack. Jack Goldsmith, who was legal counsel to former President George W. Bush, already made the argument that while chemical warfare against one's own citizens is a violation of international law, so is bombing a country without the action being in self-defense or "to maintain or restore international peace and security."

Finally, I think we have to be worried about expectations. One is the speed and ease with which Trump capriciously switched positions. The Trump administration announced on March 30 that they have no interest in opposing Assad, and then fired missiles at a Syrian airbase six days later. Even if Trump feels committed to the cause right now, what happens if he gets us militarily involved and decides a few months later that it is not worth it? This leads into another concern, which is a lack of corresponding strategy. Was the Tomahawk attack a one-time punitive action or will this lead to further action? The fact that we cannot answer that question shows a lack of preparedness of the Trump administration, which is ironic considering that he said in April 2016 that he would not deploy military force without a plan. Relatively speaking, the United States had more of a strategy entering Iraq and Afghanistan than Trump has right now. If the United States were to militarily intervene in Syria, it would need to figure out how to coordinate with the international community to rebuild cities, demilitarize Shia operatives and ISIS, and how to end the civil war. The Right-leaning Federalist even published a nice list of 14 questions the Trump administration should be open enough to answer before we should continue discussing or considering military intervention in Syria.

Given the tone Trump has set about ISIS (e.g., he would "bomb the shit out of them," he would "kill terrorists and their families"), as well as the posture of the war hawks in Congress, there is the issue of mission creep, something that even the Right-leaning Heritage Foundation worries about. And even if neoconservatives got their wish and we were fully involved in the war in Syria, can we realistically expect that we will oust Assad, bring democracy to Syria, keep jihadists at bay, and keep Russia and Iran happy? Our past attempts to "stabilize the Middle East" not only left Iraq and Afghanistan in direr straits, but led to the ascent of ISIS. There's also the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate that the United States pays for to this very day. The United States intervened in the Vietnam War, and all the U.S. got was over 58,000 dead soldiers, over 153,000 wounded soldiers, and a unified Vietnam ruled by Communists. The United States' track record on military interventions since after WWII is not exactly flattering.

And if you want more proof to effectiveness on military interventions, read Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict by political scientist Patrick Regan. He studies 175 military interventions from 1944 to 1994, and finds that 30 percent of interventions succeed in terms of less violence and loss of life. There is also another study that shows that outside military interventions on behalf of rebel factions actually increase the likelihood of violence (Wood et al., 2012, p. 29). The results of these studies make sense given that military powers often have little information of what is taking place on the ground, especially when it comes to understanding the conflicting goals of the factions involved.

These are the sort of issues that should have us concerned about Trump's attack on the Syrian airbase. Trump's Tomahawk attack by itself is not going to change the political reality on the ground (National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster already admitted as much), and it is not going to make Assad grow a conscience. Having a more lasting effect would need to involve more than Trump's $60 million stunt. This is the first major foreign policy decision Trump made since becoming president. As such, Trump's Tomahawk attack and how he subsequently reacts to the situation in the Middle East is going to dictate U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his term.

Without an actual plan, I am not confident in the United States' ability to stabilize the region. I am even less confident because Trump wants to boost military spending while cutting the Department of State's budget by nearly a third (120 retired generals thought these cuts were folly). Even if Trump were willing to put in the military resources for a full-scale war, I am not only worried about the fatigue that the United States experiences from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I also worry that it would come at the cost of more soldiers' lives, billions of dollars that the United States does not have, and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. As we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we can put money, soldiers, and arms into a full-scale conflict, but even that level of intensity can lead to ultimate failure.

It's not simply an issue of getting involved in another war, but also Trump's sudden, capricious shift in a key foreign policy issue combined with a lack of long-term strategy. While it is possible to have limited and effective strikes (e.g., the Balkans), we have seen that most military interventions fail and increase the likelihood of bloodshed. Time will tell as to whether Trump's attack will be considered a success or failure, but based on the available information, abandoning caution and a pursuit for a long-term strategy while jettisoning diplomacy and other non-military options is unsettling indeed.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Drink Four Cups of Wine During Passover?

One of the many facets I find fascinating about Judaism is the stance it takes on alcohol. Views in Christianity vary, but a number of denominations take it to be sinful. In Islam, the Koran (5:90) prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Judaism takes a more positive stance on alcohol. Like with many things in the world, we have the ability to use it in a mundane manner, abuse it, or elevate the mundane into the holy. Judaism takes the third path, and holds the belief that wine can be sanctified in a blessing referred to as Kiddush (קידוש). Kiddush is recited at a number of events: Shabbat, holidays, weddings, brit milah (circumcision ceremony). The Jewish holiday of Passover is different. We don't say the Kiddush over just one cup, but over four cups. You would think that Passover is like other times where one cup is satisfactory. What about Passover is so special that we need to say the Kiddush four times?
  1. Passover is referred to as "the time of our freedom" (זמן חרותנו). Wine is historically considered a royal drink. We drink the wine to celebrate freedom (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz u'Matzah, 7:10), not only that of the ancient Israelites, but of our own freedoms. This could help explain why we drink more wine than on other occasions, but it still doesn't explain why we drink four cups.
  2. The Talmud says that (Pesachim 68b) when G-d promised to deliver the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 6:6-8), He used four different phrases to describe the redemption: A) "I shall take you out", B) "I shall rescue you", C) "I shall redeem you", and D) "I shall bring you." Chabad elucidates upon what each of those four phrases means within the context of the four cups of wine. 
  3. The words "cup of wine" were mentioned in the Pharaoh's butler's dream (Genesis 40:11-13). The Yerushalmi Talmud (Pesachim 10:3) teaches that the cups of wine allude to Israel's redemption.  
  4. The Talmud (Pesachim 117a) states that the four different cups of wine are for four different blessings: one for the wine itself, one for the recitation of the Haggadah, one a blessing over the meal, and one for saying Hallel. 
The two main motifs of the traditional commentary are that of freedom and blessing. Freedom is a blessing. The Israelites were once slaves, but then were freed. As the Passover song Dayenu illustrates, liberation was the beginning of redemption. Redemption came about through free will. We can say "freedom is a blessing," but by reversing that, blessing is a freedom we have. The four cups gives during Passover gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the freedom and redemption that G-d can provide. May this Passover be a time to value our freedoms and count our blessings!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Trump Energy Independence Executive Order: An Assault on the Environment?

President Trump continues his barrage of executive orders. Last week, he signed Executive Order 13783. The Executive Order is for "Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth." In short, the Executive Order was created to roll back Obama-era energy regulations with the hopes of stimulating economic growth. Environmental activists essentially think that Trump's actions are going to destroy the environment, whereas proponents think it is going to think it is going to be a huge boom to economic progress while having little to no effect on the environment. Who is right, or at least more right? To answer that, I would like to take a loo at some of the key provisions of the Executive Order (also see here and here for further reading):

Scale back the Clean Power Plan. What I will note before continuing is that the Executive Order does not eliminate the Clean Power Plan, which was Obama's signature climate change policy. The Clean Power Plan is currently on legal stay, but Trump might have the Department of Justice to suspend it since Section 4 the Executive Order includes a provision to review (and possibly suspend or revise) the Clean Power Plan. I took a look at the Clean Power Plan over a year ago. The Plan is expected to cost $1.3 to $2.4 trillion in regulatory costs over the next decade while only lowering the global temperature by 0.02ºC by 2100. That is a whole lot of cost for a very small difference.

Revisit the social cost of carbon estimates. The purpose of creating a social cost of carbon is to put a dollar amount on the damage caused by the damage caused by global warming. In 2015, the Obama administration agreed that the amount would be $35 per ton of carbon emitted. The discussion behind this social cost is important because it is the justification with which the Obama Administration justified its environmental policies. The Obama Administration assumed that the discount rate for the social cost of carbon is 3 percent. A discount rate is used to compute the value of a social project. A lower discount rate would mean paying more cost now, and a higher discount rate would mean pushing off the costs to the future. If you select a higher discount rate (e.g., 7 percent), you're saying that the issue is not as big of a deal. A lower discount rate signals urgency to solve the issue. The discount rate leads to a certain amount of subjectivity because it depends on how urgent you see the issue. The Obama Administration chose a lower discount rate of 3 percent because if views the issue more seriously. I have looked at the issue of social cost of carbon before (see here, here, and here), and what I can tell you is that a higher discount rate could mean that there is a very small, if not non-existent, social cost of carbon. This doesn't address the endangerment finding that keeps the SCC in place. However, if the Trump Administration alters the social cost of carbon, it would be more difficult to justify stringent climate change policy. In a best-case scenario, rolling back onerous energy regulations could propel at least some modest economic growth.

Lifting the coal lease moratorium. The federal government owns 570 million acres of land with coal reserves. In 2016, Obama put a moratorium on leasing the land to mining companies because there were concerns about the mining companies getting too good of deal to where it was tantamount to a subsidy of the fossil fuels industry. Section 6 of the Executive Order gives the EPA the ability to amend the coal lease moratorium. This sounds important because the coal reserves on federal land account for 40 percent of coal production. This might sound like a burdensome regulation, except for the fact that there is a coal supply glut.

Repeal guidance for taking climate change into account for NEPA reviews. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was created in 1970 to require federal agencies to take into account the environmental impact of their policies. Obama issued some guidance for the agencies to take climate change into account, and Trump is now looking to remove that with Section 3(c) of the Executive Order. This might not do much since federal agencies still need to account for the impact of greenhouse gases. This might end up causing confusion and subsequent litigation, but not accounting for all the effects could exacerbate something like national security concerns.

Postscript: I know with all the polarization we see, it's common to either call something a disaster or the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I don't see anything particularly damaging or helpful in this Executive Order. The Clean Power Plan and the endangerment finding are not going anywhere, which means the coup struck to Obama-era environmental regulation is minimal. The supposed victory for the coal industry is not that a big deal because the coal industry's biggest issue is not regulatory, but rather that it will no longer be the leader in the energy sector.

And let's also consider how much the government has done or can do to help. I would like to point out that a) the global temperature has not increased as much as most climate change models have predicted, and b) because it is a global issue, you need to get China on board. Good luck with that last one! U.S. carbon emissions have been at their lowest in twenty years, in no small part due to fracking, the dropping prices of wind and solar, urbanization, and technological development. We should be mindful to take every factor into account when assessing environmental cost and benefit, but let's be honest: this Executive Order isn't going to do much in either direction.