Immigration Chaos

This weekend, we saw again what happens when the federal government acts on the basis of executive orders rather than statutes that proceed through Congress, are subject to hearings and debates before being approved by our elected representatives, and get signed into law by the President, as the Constitution contemplates.

ap-immigration-trump-cf-170126_12x5_1600Late Friday afternoon, President Trump issued an executive order on immigration.  Like many executive orders, this one features dense references to statutes and programs that makes it beyond the comprehension of normal Americans.  The order has multiple components, but the ones that had an immediate effect over the weekend indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow refugee vetting procedures to be reviewed, and blocked citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.  (The last component has people talking about the Trump Administration imposing a “Muslim ban”; the Trump Administration denies that, noting that the seven countries listed were actually identified for special treatment by the Obama Administration and that many other Muslim-majority countries are not included on the list.)

The order was issued, and then . . . chaos reigned.  Were people with “green cards” — that is, permits that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States — subject, or not subject, to the bans?  First they apparently were, then the Trump Administration said they weren’t.  In the meantime, international airports and security officials struggled to figure out how they were supposed to implement the ban, unsuspecting travelers were left in limbo in airport concourses, lawyers filed lawsuits, different federal district courts issued different orders about different parts of the executive order, and now it’s not entirely clear who can or should be doing what, and for how long.  It’s to the point that, because a federal court ruling in Boston is different and perhaps broader than a federal court ruling in New York, immigration lawyers are encouraging international travelers to re-route through Boston’s Logan Airport, just in case.

All of this is aside from the merits of the executive order, which has been widely viewed, in the Unites States and abroad, as a sign that the country that features the welcoming Statue of Liberty on its eastern shore is now in the hands of paranoid xenophobes.  And the confusion about the terms and implementation of the executive order just make the black eye America has absorbed a little larger and a little darker.

It was clear that the Trump Administration was going to do something about immigration; it was one of Trump’s principal campaign themes, and so far he has acted on things pretty much like he said he would.  But it’s also another example of why government by far-reaching executive order is just bad policy, period — whether the executive orders are issued by the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration, or any other Administration.  We need to stop government by executive edict and administrative thunderbolt.  It’s time that Congress started to do its job.

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Pumping Up A New Housing Bubble

The Washington Post carried a story a few days ago with a surprising headline:  “Obama administration pushes banks to make home loans to people with weaker credit.”

Wait, what is this — 1997?

housing-bubbleThe story details the Obama Administration’s concern that while the housing market is getting stronger, not everyone is benefiting.  That’s because banks are leery about making home loans to new borrowers and people whose credit scores are iffy.  As a result, the Administration is trying to encourage banks to make more loans using programs funded by taxpayers that insure banks against loan defaults, including programs of the Federal Housing Administration.  The Obama Administration wants lenders to use more “subjective judgment” in making loans and wants to make it easier for homeowners whose houses are underwater to refinance their loans.

The article further notes that, since the Great Recession hit in 2008, the government has been insuring between 80 and 90 percent of new home loans.  One of the principal federal agencies involved is the FHA, which allows borrowers with credit scores as low at 500 or down payments as little as 3.5 percent to get home loans.  Banks aren’t going down to that low end of the scale, however.  The average credit score on FHA loans now is 700, because banks are worried that if their loan portfolios are hit with defaults they’ll be held responsible — so they’re playing it safe.  From 2007 to 2012, banks rejected loans for 90 percent of applicants with scores between 680 and 620.

It’s amazing that, so soon after an economy-shaking recession that was largely caused by a massive housing bubble and ridiculous lending practices, regulators would be urging banks to loosen up their loan portfolios, make “subjective” decisions, and rely on the good ol’ taxpayer to insure them against risky lending practices.  It appears that banks have tried to learn their lesson and not repeat the practices that made The Big Short such a wild romp.  Don’t we want banks to be prudent?  And why should the federal government be insuring such a large percentage of new home loans, anyway?  If so many loans are being made to people with strong credit scores and meaningful down payments, why should taxpayers be standing behind 80 to 90 percent of those loans?  Don’t we want banks to make their own credit decisions and take their own risks?

Oh, and one other thing:  the article talks about how owning a home helps build a family’s wealth, and notes that without looser loan standards many young people will be forced to rent rather than buy.  This seems like ’90s-era thinking to me.  The reality now is that many young people don’t want to be tied down to an immobile asset that consumes a huge chunk of their monthly paycheck and won’t be paid off for 30 years.  They like renting because it gives them flexibility and the chance to pursue those good-paying jobs that are so hard to come by and might just be in another city or another state.  With some people saying the economy is teetering on the brink of another recession, can you blame them?

Women, Men, Combat, And The Draft

Recently the Department of Defense announced that, beginning in January, all combat jobs in the military would be open to women.  The decision means that about 220,000 combat military positions, mostly in the Marine Corps and the Army infantry and armor units, are available to female members of the military, provided they can satisfy certain gender-neutral performance standards and other qualification requirements.

women-in-combatThe last point is, I think, the most important one, because objective standards that are based upon a rational assessment of the expected needs of the job, but are blind to gender, should be the goal.  Does the recruit, regardless of their gender, have the physical strength and capabilities, eye-hand coordination, mental characteristics, and other attributes needed to be part of the squad and do the job?  If so, they should be eligible for the position.

I applaud this decision from the Obama Administration, which removes one of the last broad rules providing for differing treatment of men and women.  Of course, the performance standards for various positions will need to be carefully determined, and in some instances the objectively determined physical demands of the position — such as the need for substantial upper-body strength in certain combat roles, for example — might ultimately lead to qualification of more men than women, as happens in, say, firefighting jobs.  But they key point is that women who can meet the requirements have the opportunity to do so, without being barred by an unfair, across-the-board rule.

Much of the traditional opposition to the notion of women in combat roles, in reality, seemed to have little to do with actual physical capabilities and more to do with antique notions of sexuality and proper gender roles.  There were expressions of concern that romantic relationships might form in the foxhole that could destroy unit morale, or that men in the unit might feel so protective of women in the unit that they would forsake their training to recklessly rescue the damsel in distress.  Whether there was a factual basis for these concerns in the past is debatable, but my observation of group dynamics among younger people suggests that old-fashioned notions of appropriate gender roles don’t have much significance these days — and in any case I’m confident that tough Marine and Army drill instructors, and squad leaders, can train and discipline troops so that such concerns don’t materialize in reality.

There’s now one, last sign of unequal treatment between men and women when it comes to military service in America:  registration with the Selective Service System, and the possibility of being drafted, which is required only of men between 18 and 25.  When will this last bastion of inequality also fall to the enlightened attitudes of modern America?

When A Reporter’s Story Makes A Difference

Earlier this week The Associated Press reported that the federal healthcare.gov website — the portal that many Americans have used to search for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act — was sharing private information about users with a number of third-party entities that specialize in advertising and analyzing internet data for marketing purposes.  The AP reported that the personal information made available to those entities could include age, income, ZIP code, and whether a person smokes or is pregnant, as well as the internet address of the computer that accessed the healthcare.gov website.

The federal government responded that the point of the data collection and sharing was simply to improve the consumer experience on the healthcare.gov website and added that the entities were “prohibited from using information from these tools on HealthCare.gov for their companies’ purposes.”  The latter point seems awfully naive — once data gets put into detailed databases on powerful computer systems, who is to say it is not used to help a third-party company better target pop-up ads for their other clients? — and in any case ignores the ever-present risk of a hacking incident that exposes the personal information to criminals.  Privacy advocates and Members of Congress also argued that the extent of data collected went beyond what was necessary to enhance customer service.

On Friday the AP reported that the Obama Administration had changed its position and reduced the release of healthcare.gov users’ personal data.  Privacy advocates remain concerned about the website’s data collection and storage policies and the available data connections with third parties — connections which conceivably could be used to access personal information — but the Administration’s response at least shows some sensitivity to privacy issues and is a first step toward better protecting personal information.

It may not amount to a huge matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, but it’s gratifying when an enterprising reporter’s story can expose a troubling practice and cause a change in a way that benefits the Average Joe and Jane.  It’s how our system is supposed to work, and it’s nice to see that it still work when journalists do their jobs and do them well.

Word Games About War

The Obama Administration has an amazing, almost uncanny ability to stub its toe on the most ludicrous things imaginable.  The latest weird distraction involves whether our campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a “war.”

Secretary of State John Kerry took pains, in two separate interviews, to say that “war is not the right terminology” to describe the U.S. actions against ISIS, which instead will be a “major counterterrorism operation.”  National Security Advisor Susan Rice similarly resisted describing the operation as a “war.”  The next day, however, a Pentagon spokesman and the White House Press Secretary both described the ISIS campaign as a “war.”

I’m guessing that what happened is this:  some political operative issued “talking points” that strongly discouraged using the word “war” because they don’t want Americans to think they’re going to see a repeat of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.  But if you say you are going to destroy an an armed opponent, as President Obama said of ISIS in his speech this week, what you are talking about obviously is a war.  Quibbling about words makes the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor look like political flacks rather than the thoughtful, above-the-fray stewards of American foreign policy.

This is another instance, too, where the words can have real-world consequences.  America is trying to build a coalition of countries to fight ISIS.  If you are the leader of one of those countries that is considering joining the coalition, and you are trying to decide whether you can trust the United States, what message about long-term American commitment do you draw from the silly wrangling about whether the U.S. actions are a “war” or a “major counterterrorism operation”?  If you’re trying to decide whether to deploy your scarce military and economic resources, and potentially make your country a target of a brutal group of Islamic terrorists, do you want to rely on an ally that is inexplicably pussyfooting around about whether it is fighting a “war”?

The Deadline Arrives

It’s December 1.  Normally that wouldn’t mean much, except for a turn of the calendar page.  This year, however, it’s a bit different, because it’s been established as the date by which the healthcare.gov website is supposed to be operating at some reasonable level of functionality.

It’s not entirely clear what standard of performance will be the measuring stick; if you listen to different members of the Obama Administration, the goals seem to be a bit of a moving target.  But back when the healthcare.gov website was a crashing, frozen embarrassment, the Administration set November 30 as the deadline.  Now we can expect the website to be the most scrutinized, evaluated website in the history of computers.  There will be a huge spike in usage today, caused in large part by hordes of journalists and bloggers and curious folks who just want to see what the fuss is all about.  You have to wonder — how many of the people on the website are actually using it for its intended purpose of trying to shop for health insurance, rather than messing around trying to see what causes an error message?

We can expect lots of stories about the website over the next few days, from all points along the political spectrum.  Progressives will rave about how much the website has improved, and conservatives will focus on its remaining failures.  The website story will be treated like a horse race, with winners and losers.  In the meantime, average Americans everywhere should be asking how this happened, and why we are spending so much money to fix a website that clearly shouldn’t have been so poorly designed at the outset.  On that latter point, the New York Times has an interesting piece about how the failure happened and how the Obama Administration reacted.  It’s not an attractive story.

Taking The “Affordable” Out Of The Affordable Care Act

This week, enterprising journalists discovered that the Obama Administration has delayed another key provision of the Affordable Care Act.

In this instance, the delay affects one of the core selling points of the Act — the provision that capped the total amount of out-of-pocket expenses, in the form of deductibles and co-payments and other contributions by the insured toward health care.  It was supposed to take effect in 2014, but the newly discovered ruling gives insurers a one-year extension.

The delay wasn’t exactly announced in a way that befits an Administration that President Obama recently described as “the most transparent Administration in history.”   The New York Times article linked above describes the relevant ruling as follows:  “The grace period has been outlined on the Labor Department’s Web site since February, but was obscured in a maze of legal and bureaucratic language that went largely unnoticed. When asked in recent days about the language — which appeared as an answer to one of 137 “frequently asked questions about Affordable Care Act implementation” — department officials confirmed the policy.”  I guess “transparency” means burying the bad news in an avalanche of regulatory drivel and minutiae, rather than being honest about the many delays and snags that have affected legislation that was passed three years ago amidst confident predictions about its implementation, enforceability, and impact.

And speaking of impact, Forbes has a very interesting article about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on, well, getting affordable care.  It discusses the inevitable effect of caps on out-of-pocket expenses like co-payments and deductibles.  Because they don’t have anything to do with the cost of health care, that just means more of the cost will be paid through premiums imposed on everyone, rather than through contributions by the users (and, often, overusers) of health care.  The article notes that some colleges that used to offer cheap plans to their healthy students have had to drastically increase the premiums and other schools have stopped offering health care plans altogether.

Of course, the whole notion of burden-sharing underlying the Act means that some people will pay more — the question is, how many people, and how much more?  What we’ve seen of the Affordable Care Act so far doesn’t instill great confidence that we know the answers to those two important questions.