(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Some Real Fake News on Trump and Trade Data

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Talk about a non-story. That some globalization cheerleaders have tried to blow up into a scandal. And all because the Trump administration seems to be interested in correcting important distortions in some commonly used U.S. trade data that presents a misleading picture of America’s exports, imports, and trade balances.

Here’s the situation. Last Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that  “The Trump administration is considering changing the way it calculates U.S. trade deficits, a shift that would make the country’s trade gap appear larger than it had in past years, according to people involved in the discussions.”

According to the Journal, “The leading idea under consideration would exclude from U.S. exports any goods first imported into the country, such as cars, and then transferred to a third country like Canada or Mexico unchanged….”

Continued the article, “Economists say that approach would inflate trade deficit numbers because it would typically count goods as imports when they come into the country but not count the same goods when they go back out, known as re-exports.”

So in other words, President Trump and his minions are thinking of artificially deflating the figures describing what the United States sells to the rest of the world, but not making a corresponding change on the import side that would reduce the amount of goods that the nation buys from its trade partners. The result would be a larger U.S. trade deficit, and added ammo for the administration’s claim that America’s trade policy needs major surgery. Talk about creating “alternative facts,” right?

That’s what the Journal‘s editorial board concluded. Charged these trade zealots, the Trump-ers’ “effort to recalculate U.S. trade flows to show larger deficits” is a “trick….borrowed from the political left” that “deserves to be hooted down as an attempt to manipulate statistics to assist bad economic policy [i.e., curbs on trade flows].”

But these allegations aren’t even close to the mark – that is, if you believe the Journal‘s own reporting. For as the original piece eventually reveals (based, as is the entire article, on anonymous sources), the president’s team is indeed mulling making those import data changes, too – which would involve switching the import measure “to ‘imports for consumption,’ a slightly narrower way of measuring imports that would make less of a difference in the overall balance. “

Which means that – weirdly – the Journal reporters decided not to tell those outraged economists that the supposed Trump administration exercise would make statistically valid symmetrical changes, or that these (of course nameless) economists received this info from the reporters and decided to ignore it in order to try to create the appearance of impropriety. It also means that Journal editorial writers either didn’t read their own publication’s coverage all the way through, or chose to ignore that decisive material. Either way, someone has just massively violated their profession’s ethics.

As for the change (reportedly) under consideration itself, it’s entirely justified because those re-exports that under the main system for presenting trade data are counted as real exports literally are not Made in America. As indicated above, they enter the U.S. economy from abroad and then are shipped overseas (or across the border to Canada or Mexico) in nearly all cases entirely or virtually unchanged.

This means that they add virtually nothing to American economic growth or employment – a major and entirely valid reason that exports are so beloved). And although, as some trade advocates claim, their transit into and through the United States creates logistical jobs (in transportation and,warehousing services), such logistical jobs would be created anyway if those goods were domestically produced (Unless you think that such products typically don’t need to be stored after production and then transported to customers, too?)

Moreover, the distortions resulting from sloppy methodology of the main exports numbers are anything but bupkis. Last year, for example, failing to strip out foreign-produced goods boosted total U.S. merchandise exports by 15.43 percent – or $224.33 billion. Relatively speaking, the impact on manufactures exports was even bigger – 17.48 percent, or $223.36 billion.

And the effects on America’s goods exports to Mexico and Canada, its partners in the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are especially noteworthy. Proper counting would reduce 2016 U.S. merchandise exports to the former by 23.19 percent and manufactures exports by 25.30 percent. The comparable numbers for Canada are 17.14 percent and 17.93 percent.

Moreover, since proper counting has little effect on import totals, either globally or for NAFTA trade, raising its profile would definitely show higher U.S. deficits. And the export gap has been growing steadily across the board.

Fittingly, this story can be closed on an absurd note, too. As indicated above, the U.S. government already compiles and reports (though in an unsatisfactorily low-profile way), export and import data that quantify exports actually produced in America, and imports actually consumed in America (although, as discussed in this solid Public Citizen analyses, the import numbers could still use some improvement). So a changeover to more accurate figures that reveal trade’s true impact on U.S. production and job creation looks to be pretty easy. Think we’ll be reading about that in The Wall Street Journal?

Making News: This AM’s CNBC Trade Policy Interview and a New Video Lecture on Globalization

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I’m pleased to present the link to the streaming video of my segment (early!) this morning on CNBC on the state of trade policymaking in Washington, D.C. So if somehow you weren’t able or willing to rise and shine at 5:30 AM EST, you can still listen to a fascinating discussion involving me, CNBC anchor Sara Eisen, and CNBC correspondent Ylan Mui, on proposals for a trade game-changing border adjustment tax.

Also, as many of you know, it’s been a privilege of mine to have served for more than two years on the Board of Directors of the Henry George School of Social Science in New York City. The school’s website contains a terrific series of video interviews with and lectures by some of the world’s leading economists. Earlier this year, I was honored when I was asked to contribute to kick off a special group of lectures on trade and globalization. Here’s the link to my talk, and to one by Prof. Jack Rasmus of St. Mary’s (Cal.) College.

Of course, keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments – including the latest trade and globalization lectures sponsored by the Henry George School.

Making News: On CNBC at the Crack of Dawn!

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I’m pleased to announce that I am scheduled to return to CNBC very early tomorrow morning for an in-studio interview with Worldwide Exchange anchor Sara Eisen.  The segment is slated to start at 5:30 AM EST, and you can of course watch live on your cable or satellite system, or at CNBC.com.  And if for some reason, you can’t rouse yourself at that hour for what’s sure to be a free-wheeling discussion of the Trump presidency and the global economy, as usual, I’ll post a link to the streaming video as soon as one’s available.

Also, don’t forget to keep checking back with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other events!

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Signals Remain Mixed at Best

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A short break in my aforementioned schedule has emerged, so why not use it to briefly review two new important clues from last Wednesday on the status of the U.S. economy – the latest inflation-adjusted wages data, and the similarly price-adjusted manufacturing production numbers? They’re worth noting because, although the economics world’s conventional wisdom seems to be concluding that the historically sluggish American recovery that began in mid-2009 is finally reaching a more respectable pace, these new numbers seem to be saying, “Not so fast.”

The main bright orange flag was waved by those real wage figures, which bring the story up to January, and which incorporate revisions going back to January, 2012. Their main message to me? The nation is now firmly stuck in a wage recession. That is, after-inflation wages have been down on net for at least two straight quarters. In fact, they’re 0.19 percent lower than they were last February – a span of eleven months.

A big reason is that in January, real wages fell on month by 0.47 percent in the private sector. (The real wage data don’t track pay in the public sector, since those levels are set largely by government fiat, not market forces.) That’s their worst such performance since August, 2012, when they sank by 0.58 percent sequentially.

And year-on-year, constant dollar wages were flat in January – the worst such change since June, 2014, when they were also flat on year. Between January, 2015 and January, 2016, by contrast, real wages rose by 1.04 percent. And during the entirety of this economic recovery – which is now more than seven years old, inflation-adjusted wages have advanced by only 3.30 percent.

The picture in manufacturing was comparably dismal. It’s mired in a wage recession, too, as inflation-adjusted pay is down 0.28 percent since last April. I’d say that January’s monthly performance was especially bad (down 0.46 percent). But it actually beat the new December figure (down 0.64 percent). And just as with overall private sector real wages, you’d have to go back to August, 2012 to find a bigger monthly drop (0.76 percent).

Year-on-year, real wages did rise in January – by 0.37 percent. But that rate was the slowest since November, 2014 (0.19 percent) and was much worse than the 1.22 percent improvement registered during the previous two Januarys. And since the current recovery’s June, 2009 onset, real manufacturing wages have inched up only 0.75 percent.

These new January figures are still preliminary, so they’ll be revised yet again in subsequent months. But it’s hard to square the phrase “wage recession” with the idea of a healthy economy or labor market.

The manufacturing production numbers that also came out Wednesday morning were better, but anything but stellar. And they were strange enough to leave a data geek scratching his or her head. The main reason? The automotive sector, which has led the domestic manufacturing sector out of its worst tailspin since the Great Depression, was a January real output laggard – and has been for the last three months. Largely as a result, so was the entire durable goods super-sector, which grew more slowly for a change than its non-durables counterpart.

Overall after-inflation manufacturing output in January was up 0.22 percent on a monthly basis – nothing unusual, but at least enough to keep the sector leaving behind the recession it endured from November, 2014 through last September. Revisions were positive, too, with November’s 0.14 percent sequential output dip marked up to a 0.04 percent increase, and December’s month-on-month improvement upgraded from 0.17 percent to 0.26 percent.

Oddly, however, constant dollar production of motor vehicles and parts combined decreased by 2.90 percent on month in January – the biggest such fall-off since last May’s 4.77 percent. In addition, the decline was led by vehicles, where real output plunged by 4.67 percent – the biggest such plummet since last May’s 6.98 percent. In fact, that was the second sequential drop in after-inflation vehicle production in the last three months. Auto parts has experienced a similar slump, but in January, real output was off by only 1.72 percent.

To give you an idea of just how unusual this latest trend has been, since the last recession began at the end of 2007, real manufacturing output is down 3.56 percent. Take away the automotive sector, and the downturn has been more than twice as bad – 7.60 percent.

An optimist could say that manufacturing is finally reducing its dependence on vehicle and parts production for respectable production performance. A pessimist could say that trouble in automotive is likely to foreshadow further weakness in the rest of manufacturing. I’ll stay agnostic on this count. What seems clearer from the new manufacturing and wages figures, however, is that more than seven years after the current weak recovery began, the jury is still out as to whether it will or can escape the frustrating stop-go pattern it’s exhibited so far.

Housekeeping: Whereabouts, Privacy, Thanks & Thom Hartmann Video!

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Since I’ve always been concerned about protecting my privacy since starting RealityChek and becoming active on social media, I’ve been content to let my sites go more or less dark during periods when personal and/or professional obligations prevent me from posting or tweeting or whatever. But I realize that the result of leaving readers and followers more or less in the dark during these periods could fairly be seen as inconsiderate.

So I’m writing today (briefly!) to confirm that I have been in one of those periods since the middle of this past week, and will probably be unable to put up much if any material of genuine substance till the end of this coming week. As some of you who engage with me on Facebook and Twitter know, I have been able to make some brief entries on those sites. But my activity will be pretty much limited to remarks of that nature for several days more. So thanks for your patience, and I’m sure to be back to my normal routine in a little over a week. And I’ll do a better job of informing you about these periods in the future.

I also, however, wanted to take this opportunity once again to thank everyone who has taken the time to comment on RealityChek posts. It’s been great to see how thoughtful the overwhelming majority of your reactions are, whether you agree or disagree, as well as how civil and substantive. And my apologies for any delays in responding or failures to respond on my part. As I’ve explained before, this one-man blogging operation is pretty time-consuming, but I really do value the chance to interact with everyone, and am trying my best to keep up.

In this vein, thanks so much also to everyone who’s decided to follow RealityChek. I’ll keep calling them as I see them, and I hope you will want to spread the word.

Finally, the link to my interview Tuesday night on Thom Hartmann’s RT America program is on-line. Click on this link for an intriguing discussion of the apparent tumult of the early weeks of the Trump administration, and what it could mean for the policy priorities President Trump stood for during his campaign.

Making News: On Thom Hartmann’s RT Show Tonight Talking White House Shocks

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to be going back onto Thom Hartmann’s show on RT America to talk about the turmoil in the Trump White House and how it’s been affecting critical policy issues – notably, the just-concluded summit with Japan’s prime minister. In fact, the segment will draw on my post this morning on the same subject.

The interview will start at 7:15 PM EST. If you don’t receive RT on your TV system, you can watch on line live here. As always, I’ll post a link to the streaming video as soon as one is available.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for ongoing news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

 

Im-Politic: Flynn & Abe Reveal the Price of a Thinly Staffed Trump Administration

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During the last presidential campaign, the Mainstream Media ran so many stories about the Trump campaign being in various stages of “disarray” at various times that some skepticism was in order when such articles resumed popping up following Mr. Trump’s presidential victory and inauguration. In addition, I kept asking myself why any official with any loyalty to Mr. Trump would even speak with mainstream reporters like The New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman, who was so hostile to their boss for so long that she was considered a “surrogate” by top aides to candidate Trump’s main general election rival, Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, as so often remarked, running for office is hardly the same as serving in office, especially when the presidency is involved. And the resignation of an official so high level as national security adviser Michael Flynn after only about three weeks into an administration is a glaring sign that the president is well behind the curve in getting his organizational act together. Unless he raises his game dramatically very soon, his thick teflon coating could start wearing very thin, and even at this early stage, “failed presidency” claims will look disturbingly on target.

But even if the transition to a post-Flynn presidency goes relatively smoothly, and no other fiascoes break out, this latest episode vividly reminds of a big challenge President Trump will keep facing throughout his time in office, and one that I’m not totally confident he’ll solve in a satisfactory way.

Why not? Because he’s never had a large cadre of high-quality advisers capable of staffing even the very top levels of a new administration. Nor is one is likely to appear any time soon. For nationalist critics of recent American trade, broader globalization, and foreign policies have never attracted anywhere near the kind of funding that’s needed to create the kind of counter-establishment that can nurture a big enough core of knowledgeable specialists representing that perspective.

In fact, the nationalists’ performance stands in stark and sad contrast to that of other interests in years past. The leading example is mainstream conservatism – which recognized the need for such institutions to overthrow or at least modify what they saw as a dangerously liberal policy consensus reigning in Washington and in national politics during the post-New Deal decades.

As a result, if Mr. Trump is to halt an powerful downward spiral in his presidency, he may well need to rely even more heavily than at present on cabinet and key sub-cabinet and other aides who hold much more conventional views than his – and those of his base – on key issues like trade and immigration that largely vaulted him into the Oval Office. Just look at the president’s recent summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for evidence of how this dilemma has already affected U.S. policy in ways that Trump backers can’t possibly support.

Precisely because Japan has been a leading predatory trading power for so long, its economy-wide trade barriers and other mercantile practices had drawn Mr. Trump’s ire during the campaign. In addition, Japan was (rightly) portrayed as a classic defense free-rider – a country that was able to skimp on its own military spending because of its guarantee of American protection. And candidate Trump went even further than most critics in questioning the bilateral security relationship, suggesting that because of the mounting nuclear threats from both China and North Korea, Washington’s decades-old promise to defend Japan against any and all attacks posed increasingly alarming nuclear risks to the United States.

Japan clearly was so worried about President Trump’s views that Abe rushed to the United States right after the November vote and became the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Trump in person. Abe’s trip last week, moreover, made him the second foreign leader to see President Trump in person once his term began. (Britain’s Theresa May was the first.)

Judging not only from the official record of the visit, but from the judgment of a group of Japan policy specialists that convened in Washington yesterday, Abe achieved both of his major objectives – and then some. President Trump pledged to continue the policy of defending Japan through thick and thin (“100 percent”), and Abe successfully deflected significant U.S. trade pressure – at least for the time being.

As made clear by Abe’s detailed and decisive statements during his visit, one main reason for his triumph was preparation – always an urgent necessity for Tokyo since, despite all the traditional American establishment boilerplate about interdependence, the United States has always been much more important to Japan than vice versa. But three other main reasons bring us back to the “Flynn problem.”

First, Abe plainly was able to fill a policy vacuum created both by the Trump administration’s growing pains and its thin staffing. Second, the American preparations made for the Abe meetings, including putting together briefing materials, were dominated by holdover bureaucrats who overwhelmingly support the longtime status quo in U.S.-Japan relations. And third, many of the top aides Trump has selected strongly support the status quo, too. These include Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn. The former is general recently retired from an American military with a big vested psychological and bureaucratic stake in maintaining massive U.S. forward deployed forces in East Asia. The latter is a former senior executive at Wall Street mainstay Goldman Sachs.

Not that this kind of gloom and doom scenario (from a Trump-ian standpoint) is inevitable. Although high quality nationalist policy specialists are hardly abundant, they can be found. Moreover, it’s possible that President Trump could make clear to his more establishment-oriented advisers that he expects them to reflect his own iconoclastic leanings. In addition, aides that plainly represent his campaign positions (and of course contributed substantially to formulating them) could be given the whip hand bureaucratically, in order to drive this message home.

But of course this approach’s success will depend largely on the establishment figures following this lead – and not walking away from jobs that most of them plainly don’t need financially or or professionally. At the same time, even if Mr. Trump’s more conventionally minded advisers stay on in this atmosphere, would there be enough loyalists, and enough competent loyalists, to discipline them effectively? I don’t know if the aides most strongly supportive of the president’s vision, chiefly White House policy chief Stephen Miller, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, are grappling with these issues. I do know that they’ll need to if the Trump presidency is to achieve its promise.

Making News: CNBC NAFTA Interview – & More!

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I’m pleased to report that the video of my interview earlier today on CNBC on President Trump’s intentions toward the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is on line.  Click here for an informative segment involving me, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Thomas Bollyky, and CNBC anchors Kelly Evans and Mike Santoli.

In addition, on February 10, Lifezette.com ran this post previewing the just-concluded summit between Mr. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It included my views on U.S.-Japan trade relations.

On February 8, Marketwatch.com featured my comments on the crucial economic question – posed recently by President Trump – of whether the U.S. economy is better off with a strong or weak dollar.  Click here to read them.

The previous day, a Marketwatch analysis of the recently released 2016 U.S. trade figures highlighted my perspective on President Trump’s chances of significantly changing America’s approach to the global economy.  Here’s the link.

On February 6, I was interviewed on “The Ray Horner Morning Show” on Akron, Ohio’s WAKR-AM on Mr. Trump’s trade and manufacturing policies. Unfortunately, a podcast is not yet available.

This February 3 post on Lifezette drew upon my same-day report on the January U.S. jobs figures – which closed the book on former President Obama’s employment-creation record.

And on January 30, the U.S. government-run Voice of America interviewed me on the future of U.S.-China trade and broader economic relations. You can read some excerpts at this post – which was translated somewhat imperfectly from the original Mandarin

Keep checking back with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other events.

Making News: Back on CNBC This Afternoon Talking Trump and NAFTA

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I’m pleased to announce that I am scheduled to appear today on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” program today to talk about President Trump’s plans to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to overhaul U.S. trade policy more broadly. The segment, which is slated to begin at 4:30 PM EST, can be viewed on television and on CNBC.com.

As usual, if you can’t catch the program live, I’ll be posting a link to the streaming video as soon as one’s available. And keep checking in here at RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Following Up: That Latest (Disgraceful) Court Decision on Trump’s Immigration Order

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The decision last Thursday by a federal appeals court to uphold blockage of President Trump’s recent Executive Order on immigration and refugee policy exemplified the challenge I noted when I started blogging here at RealityChek: “So much nonsense out there, so little time….” Just as I often struggle each day to decide which outrage in the public policy world against fact-based, adult thinking should be addressed, I’ve struggled to decide which sad excuses for a legal argument made by three appellate judges in the Ninth Circuit to focus on in this post.

But two groups of contentions stand out as especially dangerous and disingenuous. Both decisively influenced the judges’ determination to keep the Executive Order from being enforced on procedural grounds pending a further judicial decision on the merits of the case.

The first is the panel’s unanimous ruling on how much due process to protect Constitutionally guaranteed rights is legally deserved by foreigners outside America’s borders who have not been awarded legal resident status. That is, how many boxes do the relevant U.S. officials need to check in order to reach a legally valid decision to deny a refugee applicant admission? In these refugee cases, the Supreme Court has held that the only such obligation is providing a “facially legitimate and bona fide” reason for a judgment reached by a State Department consular officer.

The Ninth Circuit panel, however, claims that this standard (and the already established appeals process) is insufficient when refugee applicants “have a relationship with a U.S. resident or an institution that might have rights of its own to assert.” And it has ruled that the Trump Executive Order failed to meet this standard.

Even leaving aside the convincing argument that existing law denies judges jurisdiction over immigration policy (which the panel rejected in a “preliminary” sense), just consider the precedent this conclusion would set. It would mean that unless a terrorist connection could be proved conclusively, a suspected ISIS fighter or adherent who applies for refugee or other immigration status from Iraq or Yemen or wherever could be entitled to enter the United States if he or she was a relative of a non-citizen legal U.S. resident. What would conclusive proof be? Heaven knows, since the case referenced by the Ninth Circuit panel only alleged that the rejection in question wasn’t sufficiently “detailed.” And who would decide how much detail is enough? Perhaps a U.S. court? Perhaps after looking over intelligence findings that are often unavoidably judgment calls? It’s hard to imagine a better way to start turning making a sieve of screening procedures vital in an age of transnational terrorism for protecting national security.

Think I’m kidding? Here are the actual circumstances of the immigration denial decision that the Ninth Circuit apparently finds so objectionable (and which was upheld in 2014 by the Supreme Court): An Afghan-born legal resident of the United States petitioned for her husband’s entry from Afghanistan, and asserted he deserved “priority (and judicially reviewable) status” like other “immediate relatives.”

And the basis for her claim that this application was unjustly turned down – i.e., that her petition was denied due process because the rationale wasn’t sufficiently detailed? A consular official told her husband that he would be kept out of America because by his own admission, he had been an official in Afghanistan’s former Taliban government, and that U.S. law aims to exclude foreigners who have engaged in “terrorist activities” – a description that certainly applies to the Taliban.

It gets better: The federal court that did decide that a former admitted Taliban official’s application deserved (unspecified) further consideration, which resulted in the case being appealed to the Supreme Court? It was the Ninth Circuit. And four Supreme Court Justices (Stephen Breyer, who wrote a dissent, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, who joined with him) agreed.

The second especially disturbing aspect of the appellate court’s decision was the panel’s claim that it had, in accordance with “an uncontroversial principle that is well-grounded in our jurisprudence,” paid “substantial deference to the immigration and national security policy determinations of the political branches” – that is, the presidency and the Congress. The only such deference apparent in this decision is at the level of brazen tokenism.

Specifically, the three judges claimed to agree that “the Government’s interest in combating terrorism is an urgent objective of the highest order.” But they also stated that the judiciary has a responsibility to balance this interest with other legitimate considerations, namely the public’s interest in “free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families, and in freedom from discrimination.”

The “freedom from discrimination” threat of course pertains to repeated charges – also made in court by plaintiff Washington State – that the Executive Order’s refugee provisions create a “Muslim ban.” The Order’s failure to include most countries with Muslim majorities renders that charge inexplicable. Moreover, as my previous post observed, religious persecution is one of the forms of persecution that must be demonstrated by successful refugee applicants. But what’s simply jaw-dropping is the nature of the specific balancing act the appellate court identified involving national security concerns on the one hand, and freedom of travel and keeping families together on the other.

Because here’s what the three-judge panel asserted could nullify national security judgments made by the president and Congress (in the 2015 law identifying the seven countries subjected to the travel ban as “countries of concern” requiring special screening). And P.S.: It’s also what the judges agreed (in line with claims by Washington State and Minnesota) constituted enough “damage” to the State’s “economy and public universities” even to rise to the level of adjudicability in the context of immigration policy:

>”two visiting scholars who had planned to spend time at Washington State University were not permitted to enter the United States”:

>”three prospective employees from countries covered by the Executive Order for visas [for whom the University of Washington] had made plans [to arrive] beginning in February 2017”;

>”two medicine and science interns who have been prevented by the Executive Order from coming to the University of Washington”; and

>”an unspecified number of “students and faculty at Minnesota’s public universities [who] were similarly restricted from traveling for academic and personal reasons.”

If this is a balancing act, it’s one with a heavy Ninth Circuit thumb giving critical mass to laughably marginal considerations – even assuming that any of these temporarily inconvenienced students and teachers have any preexisting right to crossing American borders.

It’s true that lawyers and judges often insist that “no issue is decided finally until it is decided correctly.” But the Trump Executive Order’s treatment so far in the judiciary, and the current make-up of the Supreme Court, tell me that national security could suffer greatly until this result is finally reached.