There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Federal Agency: With Its Budget on the Chopping Block and Severely Understaffed, the State Department Is at an Impasse

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The State Department’s HQ in Foggy Bottom. Copyright by AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Early hints of what U.S. President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal might look like emerged two weeks ago, and much of the discussion has focused on which U.S. federal agencies stand to win and lose in the Age of Trump.  In keeping with its avowed “America First” policy, the Trump administration proposes increasing American defense spending (which already surpasses the defense budgets of the next 11 biggest spenders) to $603 billion a year, while slashing the budgets of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by around 37%.  In interviews and speeches, Trump and his subordinates have argued that the State Department is wasteful, focuses on the wrong priorities, and may even be inherently un-American.

Fortunately, America’s foreign ministry still has some friends in the U.S. Congress, including powerful Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain, all of whom spoke out against the proposed cuts.  Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pooh-poohed the enactment of such dramatic cuts, thereby providing tacit support for Senate Republicans to cross party lines and vote down any eventual Administration budget proposal that would gut the State Department.

America’s military establishment also rushed to defend their diplomatic brethren: 121 retired U.S. generals and admirals released an open letter to Congressional leaders asking them to fully fund America’s diplomatic and foreign aid initiatives.  In the letter, they cited earlier Congressional testimony by current U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who as an active-duty general in 2013 said: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Given that Congress has the final say over budgetary matters in the U.S., the State Department will probably survive budget season with its funding mostly intact.  But the politics surrounding Trump’s budget proposal are distracting attention from a different way in which the Trump administration is hobbling the work of America’s foreign ministry.  According to DiploPundit.net, a website which closely follows the inner workings of the State Department, only 4 of the ministry’s 39 most senior positions have been filled by the Administration thus far.  To a certain extent, this reflects the normal practice of new incoming administrations asking for the resignation of all senior management in order to staff Foggy Bottom with their own people.  But by historical standards, Trump has been incredibly slow in naming staffers to key positions, nor does he seem to be allowing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to simply appoint whoever he wishes either.  The same startling degree of inaction has also carried over to the State Department’s sister agencies, such as USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which together oversee the bulk of America’s foreign assistance.  Trump has not yet seen fit to appoint a single senior individual to either agency.

It deeply cripples the ability of federal agencies to act in a meaningful way when their topmost administrators are only in an acting capacity.  Not only can new policies and priorities not be enacted, but it also makes it more difficult for agencies to attract top-level talent moving forward and contributes to an overall loss of institutional memory.  Even day-to-day activities suffer when there is no clear leadership at the top: for decades the State Department has held a near-daily press briefing where reporters can ask for the opinion of America’s foreign ministry on issues from around the world.  Since President Trump took office on January 20th, the State Department has held only four.

At this point, it seems like keeping the State Department on the back foot by holding up the appointment of senior officials is a deliberate move on the part of the Trump administration.  And since appointments are purely a Presidential prerogative, there is little Congress can do to change the situation.  For a State Department already used to operating on a shoestring budget mentality, it looks like a grim year ahead.

(See also my previous post on the State Department in the Age of Trump.)

For the Next Time Your Cranky Uncle Complains About How Terrible Things Have Gotten

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Theories of unstoppable progress can be dangerous, but it’s hard to argue that our world is not a richer, more equal, healthier place in 2017 than it was in 1817.  To the above can be added Steven Pinker and others’ work showing that over the long-term human against human violence is trending downwards.  Maybe 2017 won’t be such a terrible year after all, if we look beyond the headlines to the slow, painstaking work of improving health care systems, teaching everyone literacy and numeracy, and solidifying political institutions.

A deeper dig into the data is available here.

Risk and Uncertainty in the Developing World

I am not a rationalist, and so at first might be thought to have welcomed a forthcoming article by Kitae Sohn in the Journal of Development Studies that makes a bold claim:

Almost all theoretical and empirical studies implicitly assume that every economic agent understands the concept of risk. We exploited a unique feature of the Indonesian Family Life Survey and argued that this assumption may not apply to the developing world. A third of working men failed to understand the concept of risk, and this incomprehension did not result from a mistake or a preference for simple answers. Moreover, after applying OLS, we found that relative to risk comprehensive men, risk incomprehensive men earned 11.9 per cent less and possessed household assets worth 9.8 per cent less.

Really?  Large segments of working men in Indonesia do not understand the concept of risk?  Also, there are “lower levels of cognitive skills in the developing world”??  Digging deeper into the article, one finds that the core of the analysis concerns how respondents answered a question about future income:

For the first question of the first set, the respondent chose one of two options: (1) receiving Rp 800,000 per month, or (2) receiving either Rp 1.6 million or Rp 800,000 per month, with equal chance. The rational choice is (2). If the respondent chose (1), the interviewer asked the following question: ‘Are you sure? In option 2 you will get at least Rp 800 thousand per month and you may get Rp 1.6 million per month. In option 1 you will always get Rp 800 thousand per month.’ The respondent had the choice of staying with (1) or switching to (2). This follow-up question is critical to this study because it made sure that the answer to the first question did not result from a mistake or a preference for simpler options; instead, the respondent did not understand the concept of risk. Henceforth, we characterised a respondent as ‘risk incomprehensive’ if he failed to choose (2) at the first attempt or after the follow-up question.

Overall, 36.3% (2926 out of 8053) respondents stuck with Option 1 and were deemed unable to understand risk.  Now, there’s lots of things we could say here, but the first that leaps to mind is the researcher’s assumption that of course people always want more money.  Indeed, that’s what’s actually being tested here, and it’s the researcher who is then deeming those who don’t seem to want more as “risk-incomprehensive” and “irrational.”

I’m not saying that there isn’t an interesting finding here, nor that the matter isn’t worthy of further study.  But, taking a step back, I think there’s at least three problematic aspects to this study.  First, there’s a probably unintentional but still uncomfortable echo of the long history of racist discourse claiming that people living in developing countries cannot govern themselves and hence need the help of the British Empire/USA/World Bank/European Union to do so properly.  Second, there is no acknowledgment that many (highly educated) people in the developed world do not seem to properly understand risk either, as Nassim Taleb and others have convincingly argued.  Third, I wonder if the problem for the world’s poor and marginalized is really whether they can’t understand risk or, rather, whether they understand it all too well but feel that risky acts are one of the only ways they have to improve their lives.  I’m thinking here of research by Linguère Mously Mbaye on the willingness of Senegalese migrants to court death in order to reach Europe.  Based on surveys, these migrants seem willing to accept on average a 25% chance of dying if it allows them to reach the continent (or, as is apparently a popular slogan in Dakar, “Barcelona or Die!”).  And other research by Dr. Mbaye has shown that Senegalese migrants exhibit a roughly normal distribution of risk-tolerance vs. risk-averseness.

Overall then, pace Dr. Sohn, it might not so much that the world’s structurally oppressed are missing a vital faculty, but rather that they make all-too rational calculations of the many costs and few benefits of their current existences.