Making News: Back on National Radio Tonight with a Trade Wars Update

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to be back on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show tonight to help John and co-host Gordon G. Chang analyze the latest developments in the U.S.-China trade conflict. With a U.S. negotiating team in Beijing right now to investigate the possibilities of a deal, it’s a segment you won’t want to miss.  And you can listen live on-line, at 9:45 PM EST, at this link.

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

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Following Up: More on Those Great New U.S. Manufacturing Jobs Figures

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Friday’s post focused on what the new U.S. jobs report that morning (containing December data) revealed about the Trump tariffs’ impact so far on domestic American manufacturing. (Overwhelmingly, they’ve done no harm.) But it’s also worth noting other industry-related highlights of this Labor Department release – and highlights they were.

First, the headline figure (32,000 net new manufacturing jobs created on-month in December) was the best such performance since last December’s 39,000. And the total revisions for October and November together added 3,000 jobs to the results for those two months. (The November and December figures are still preliminary. Further, starting next month, the Labor Department will start publishing revisions of the key data back to January 2014 – which will further change yesterday’s findings.)

Partly as a result of the last few months’ numbers, 2018 stands preliminarily as the best year for U.S. manufacturing job creation (284,000) since 1997 (304,000). The previous December-to-December manufacturing employment gain was 209,000.

Also, manufacturing jobs as a share of total non-farm jobs (the Labor Department’s definition of the total U.S. employment universe) rose to just under 8.55 percent – their highest level since July, 2016 (8.56 percent). At the start of the Trump administration (February, 2017 was its first full month in office), this figure stood at 8.49 percent. In other words, manufacturing payroll growth has been faster than overall payroll growth under President Trump.

Even so, manufacturing’s prior relative employment creation has been so weak that the sector still remains a laggard on this front for the recovery era as a whole.

Since bottoming out in February and March of 2010, manufacturing has regained 1.389 million (60.58 percent) of the 2.293 million jobs it had lost during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Overall private sector employment sank by 8.785 million during the downturn, but since then has regained 20.608 million jobs.

Manufacturing keeps trailing the overall private sector on the pay front, too. In December, pre-inflation manufacturing wages rose by 0.26 percent – considerably slower than the overall private sector’s 0.40 percent.

Year-on-year, current-dollar manufacturing wages are up by 1.98 percent – their best such performance since September, 2017 (2.18 percent). Between the previous Decembers, manufacturing hourly pay before inflation has advanced by 1.75 percent. But overall current-dollar private sector wages improved by 3.15 percent year-on-year in December.

In fact, since the current recovery began, in mid-2009, pre-inflation manufacturing wages have improved by only 18.60 percent. Overall private sector wages are 24.12 percent higher.

Moreover, the gap has been widening. The above figures show that, as of the latest data, private sector wages had grown 29.68 percent faster than manufacturing wages. As of the previous December, the difference was 24.80 percent.

Manufacturing’s pay performance looks even worse after adjusting for inflation. The latest data are from November – when manufacturing’s sequential increase (0.37 percent) actually topped that of the private sector (0.19 percent). (December’s won’t be published until the middle of this month.) But the November figures also show that, whereas private sector wages inched up year-on-year by 0.84 percent, manufacturing paychecks actually dipped by 0.27 percent.

Indeed, real manufacturing wages are cumulatively down by that amount since February, 2016 – meaning that, technically, they remain mired in a long recession (two or more date quarters of net deterioration).

Moreover, during the current economic recovery, inflation-adjusted manufacturing wages have risen less than a tenth as fast (0.47 percent) as private sector wages (4.95 percent). And the gap has widened significantly over the past year, when it stood at a 0.75 percent real wage increase for manufacturing versus a 4.07 percent rise for the private sector overall.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: New U.S. Jobs Report Delivers (Another) Face Slap to Trump’s Trade Critics

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My deepest sympathies to the nation’s tariff fear-mongers, who keep insisting that President Trump’s levies on imports have been decimating America’s domestic manufacturing sector. This morning’s Labor Department report on the U.S. employment situation in December reveals that they’re still as pathetically wrong as ever.

Let’s start, as usual, with the impact of the President’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, which started to be imposed in April, and which allegedly have been hammering metals-using industries. This Trump decision is supposed to epitomize the folly of such protectionist policies in general, and metals tariffs in particular, since metals-using industries generate much more output than metals-producing indusries, and employ many more workers.

Yet has been the case since the onset of these levies, the data makes abundantly clear that the metals-using sectors generally have been outperforming not only the rest of manufacturing jobs-wise, but the private sector economy as a whole. Here are the numbers for April through the last three data months (keeping in mind that the November and December figures are both still preliminary):

                                                   thru October     thru November     thru December

entire private sector:                +0.99 percent      +1.13 percent      +1.37 percent

overall manufacturing:           + 0.99 percent      +1.20 percent      +1.45 percent

durable goods:                         +1.25 percent      +1.43 percent      +1.67 percent

fabricated metals products:     +1.33 percent      +1.30 percent      +1.75 percent

non-electrical machinery:       +1.66 percent      +1.90 percent       +2.20 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:  +0.73 percent      +0.58 percent      +0.77 percent

household appliances:             -1.25 percent       -1.41 percent        not available

aerospace products & parts:   +4.45 percent      +5.47 percent        not available

Notably, even in one major sector that’s been lagging – automotive – the pace of net new job creation has quickened a bit lately. And the industry that’s genuinely taken it on the employment chin – appliances – has been dealing both with a separate set of tariffs on large household laundry machines along with a major slump in the American housing sector.

The impact of the Trump administration’s wide-ranging China tariffs is tougher to identify, partly because they only began in July, and partly because Chinese inputs are found in so many manufacturing industries. But here are the data for sectors with extensive global supply chains that often pass through China:

                                                           July thru November     July thru December

entire private sector:                             +0.66 percent              +0.90 percent

overall manufacturing:                         +0.66 percent              +0.93 percent

chemicals:                                            +1.54 percent              +1.40 percent

non-electrical machinery:                    +0.66 percent              +0.96 percent

computer & electronics products:        +0.50 percent              +0.83 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:               +0.90 percent              +1.08 percent

With one exception – computer and electronics products – these globalized industries have outperformed, too. And even in that lagging sector, employment has been growing faster lately.

These results still don’t prove that President Trump was right in claiming that trade wars are “easy to win.” But they sure add to the evidence that, for the United States, they’re eminently winnable. And that the President’s critics are losing. 

Making News: New National Radio Podcast on U.S.-China Trade War Now On-Line

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I’m pleased to announce that the podcast of my interview last night on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show is now on-line.  Click here for a great discussion among John, co-host Gordon G. Chang, and me that updates the situation with the U.S.-China trade conflict.

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

Glad I Didn’t Say That! U.S. Automakers Debunk Their Own Tariff Fear-Mongering

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The auto industry…fears that new tariffs, on top of those already enacted on Chinese-made vehicles and imported aluminum and steel, could have a major negative impact on the American new car market.”

MSN.com, November 18, 2018

 

General Motors’ “head of US sales, said on Thursday: ‘We feel confident heading into 2019 because we have more major truck and crossover launches coming during the year and the US economy is strong.’”

Financial Times, January 3, 2019

 

FCA’s head of US sales “also predicted a ‘solid’ 2019, attributing the company’s strength in 2018 to ‘the efforts we undertook to realign our production to give US consumers more Jeep vehicles and Ram pick-up trucks.’”

Financial Times, January 3, 2019

 

(Sources “Hit hard by trade war, automakers hoping Trump will hold off on new round of tariffs,” Money, MSN.com, November 18, 2018, https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/hit-hard-by-trade-war-automakers-hoping-trump-will-hold-off-on-new-round-of-tariffs/ar-BBPOjRn & “US car sales defied predictions of a slowdown in 2018,” by Patti Waldmeir, Financial Times, January 3, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/e538e316-0f52-11e9-a3aa-118c761d2745)

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Orwellian Economic Reporting from Dow Jones

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Everyone should agree that journalists should be skeptical of authority and its claims. In fact, all of us should be. But there’s clearly a point when skepticism goes way over the top, and today’s Dow Jones Newswires coverage of a new report on manufacturing in the United States is a perfect example. And P.S. It’s thrust mirrors that of way too much coverage of the Trump economy.

The subject of the article was the research firm IHS Markit’s survey of American industry in December. I’ve previously written that these reports suffer some significant limitations, mainly because they use a very different methodology than the federal government’s various releases on the economy. But although I hardly take them as gospel, I track them if only because so many other students of the economy – along with investors – follow them to a fault.

And here’s how reporter Micah Maidenberg described the results:

> “An index that gauges manufacturing production declined last month and business confidence looking a year out dropped to its lowest point in more than two years.”

> “The pace of new-order growth was the weakest since September 2017, IHS Market found.”

> “Output and backlogs rose but the pace of job creation last month hit a level last seen in September 2017.

Business confidence fell to its lowest level since October 2016.”

> “IHS Markit Chief Business Economist Chris Williamson said the weaker pace of economic expansion caused manufacturers to become less upbeat about 2019.

Companies reported difficulties in finding workers and inputs, but the December survey the index is based on also ‘revealed signs of slower demand growth from customers, as well as rising concerns over the impact of tariffs.'”

Two-thirds of respondents reporting higher costs attributed the increase to tariffs, he said.”

Apparently the only positive news in the survey? “New export orders grew at an accelerated pace last month, amid stronger demand from foreign customers.”

So clearly, the U.S. domestic manufacturing sector is headed for big trouble, right? Well, as that famous used car company commercial put it, “Not exactly.” Because here’s what IHS Markit also said about the subject:

> “December data indicated a slower, albeit still solid, improvement in the health of the U.S. manufacturing sector.”

> “[I]nflationary pressures eased at the end of 2018.”

> “Production growth remained solid in December, and at a rate that matched that seen in November. The rise in output was attributed to greater new order volumes.”

It’s possible that Maidenberg accentuated the negative because that’s the tack taken by that IHS Markit economist Chris Williamson in his individual comments. He emphasized that:

“Manufacturers reported a weakened pace of expansion at the end of 2018, and grew less upbeat about prospects for 2019. Output and orders books grew at the slowest rates for over a year and optimism about the outlook slumped to its gloomiest for over two years. The month rounds of a fourth quarter in which manufacturing production is indicated to have risen at only a modest annualised rate of about 1%.”

The “key findings” highlighted by IHS Markit were comparably gloomy.

But the overall IHS Markit headline number came in at a decidedly expansionary 53.8 (any figure above 50 is regarded as expansionary). IHS Markit itself said that this number “suggested a weaker, but still strong, improvement in operating conditions across the goods producing sector” and that although “ending the year with a softer overall expansion, the final quarterly average of 2018 was strong and quicker than that seen in 2017.”

Overall, manufacturing output kept rising in December. New orders kept increasing. And payrolls kept expanding. For good measure, not only did the prices manufacturers needed to pay for their parts, components, materials, and other inputs ease to an eleven-month low (to a level still deemed higher than average). But the prices manufacturers received for the goods they made “rose at a solid rate.”

Yes, momentum matters, and signs that it’s slackening somewhat are newsworthy. But so is the evidence that U.S.-based manufacturing keeps trucking along – whether reporters, and their editors, want to recognize this or not.

Making News: Back on National Radio Tonight on China Trade Wars, a Twitter Milestone…& More!

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Happy New Year one and all, and I’m pleased to announce that 2019 is scheduled to get off to a great start with a return to John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show to provide an update on the U.S.-China trade conflict.  The segment is slated to begin at 10:30 PM EST, will also feature co-host Gordon G. Chang, and you can listen live on-line at this link.

As usual, if you can’t tune in, I’ll post a link to the podcast as soon as one’s available.

Speaking of podcasts, here’s one of a radio interview I did December 27 on Breitbart News Daily on tumult in the U.S. stock markets and the outlook for the U.S. economy.  Sorry to be so late with this one, but I think you’ll find it still timely.  Click on this link and scroll down a bit till you see my name.

Finally, I got some good news this morning: My Twitter following hit 4,000.  Since then, it’s dropped by 3, but the underlying trend remains strong.  If you like RealityChek, I’m confident that all of you not yet on board will enjoy it greatly.

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

 

Im-Politic: Another Take on the Shutdown/Border Wall Dispute

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It’s obviously not such a Happy New Year for many federal government employees, with the current partial shutdown continuing and no end immediately in sight. What continues to puzzle me is why the Democrats have taken such a hard line – that is, if their substantive and political beliefs about the Border Wall whose funding is at the heart of the dispute are to be taken seriously.

On substance, the Democrats insist on portraying the Wall as at best a grossly inefficient way to improve border security – and certainly much less effective than the “enhanced fencing, technology, drones, satellites, lighting, sensors, cell phone towers” they insist are “the things the experts have clearly indicated would improve our border security.”

Politically, the Democrats say they’re confident that the Wall is unpopular – as made clear by their new proposal to end the impasse. The plan would fully fund most federal agencies through the upcoming September end of the current fiscal year. But it would only the extend through the middle of next month the current appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security (the lead agency on border security) minus any Wall funding.

Although the Democrats’ plan would include money for “fencing,” their strategy clearly assumes that the public values ending at least this episode of Washington dysfunction much more highly than building President Trump’s Wall. Moreover, most polls seem to bear out this analysis. (See in particular here.)  

But it’s at least arguable that if the Democrats do indeed view the Wall as “a 5th century solution to a 21st century problem”, and a political loser to boot, they should approve Mr. Trump’s full $5 billion request. After all, a Wall that won’t work by definition won’t present significant obstacles to greater flows of migrants with whose plight the Democrats ardently sympathize. They could depict themselves as the champions of compromise and reason who were willing to go the extra mile to work with an extremist president in the interests of restoring at least minimal normality to American public life. And the cost to taxpayers would be meager (in federal budget terms).

The Democrats’ acceptance of the President’s proposal would indeed give Mr. Trump a political victory of sorts by enabling him to proclaim that he’s kept a campaign promise. But this victory would only resonate with his base – which by itself isn’t nearly big enough to reelect him.

In this vein, even better for the Democrats: They’re surely confident that time is on their side. First, even if Wall installation began tomorrow, it couldn’t possibly deliver on its restrictionist promise for many months – or, crucially, by the time presidential campaign 2020 is in full swing. So the Democrats’ would have many months’ worth of opportunities to claim somewhat credibly that the Wall is indeed a failure.

Second, they show every sign of believing that in the 2020 elections they’ll regain the political power they’ll need to scrap this project. That’s undoubtedly why so many in the party have expressed an interest in running for president. And the Democrats’ chances of taking control of the Senate, and thus of the entire Congress, look promising, as well – as they’re defending many fewer seats than the Republicans.

All of which brings up some alternative explanations for the Democrats’ shutdown strategy. For example, maybe they’re (and in particular, their genuinely Open Borders-infatuated leaders) are actually afraid that a Wall (in tandem of course with other security measures) will work, at least once it’s finally in place. Maybe they’re so strongly opposed to more physical barriers because these structures will reduce the numbers of migrants who manage to set foot on American soil, and thereby become eligible to be handled by a loophole-filled immigration law and policy framework that ensures many of them will be released into American society – and ultimately freed to add to pressure in key (Democratic) states for ever wider voting rights.

And maybe they’re not so confident about their 2020 chances either for the White House and in the Senate. Maybe they’re consequently counting on showdowns like that over the Wall to bait the President into still more of the kind of harsh-sounding tweets, and especially threats, that unmistakably turn off many 2016 Trump supporters outside his hard core – and who exhibited buyers’ remorse in last year’s midterms. Ditto for supporters of many of their own midterms victors – centrist politicians who didn’t promise to shut down ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency), and who appear truly concerned with border security.

Maybe the Democrats are simply playing for time and hoping that a prolonged shutdown and./or devastating findings from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will combine to destroy Mr. Trump’s reelection chances whatever chaos emerges at the Border from a continuing failure to enhance security – and even after the government is reopened. And maybe it’s some combination of the above (since a single cause rarely explains major political, social, cultural, or historical developments).

None of these possibilities mean that the Democrats’ shutdown strategy per se will fail. Indeed, the President has already cut his funding request significantly, and shown flexibility on the ludicrously crucial phrasing (“wall,” “fence,” “barrier”) aspects of the issue. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if, because of the above analysis, and particularly of an even greater migrant flood it might bring, a resulting Democratic victory turned out to be Pyrrhic.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Atlantic’s Hatchet Job on Trump’s Trade Policy and Trade Negotiator

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I wish I could say that, in the process of ringing out the old year, America is ringing out incompetent or willfully ignorant journalism about U.S. trade policy. But a looooong article just published by The Atlantic on U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer makes painfully clear that that point remains as far away as ever.

The article, by Atlantic Senior Editor Matt Peterson, would deserve quick dismissal simply due to one of its major themes: that Lighthizer, President Trump’s chief trade negotiator, takes a hard line on the issue in general, and on China in particular, because he’s long been in the pocket of the domestic steel industry as one of its principal trade lawyers.

This smear is especially rich because a trade policymaker lionized by Peterson as a strong opponent of such conflicts of interest and consequent paragon of policy virtue – another American trade lawyer named Merit Janow – followed her stint as a senior magistrate at the World Trade Organization (WTO) – by accepting a position as “a charter member of the International Advisory Council of China’s sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corporation or CIC.” That is, she jumped onto the payroll of the Chinese government.

But more fundamentally troubling about Peterson’s piece is its – sadly, standard – description of the WTO as an institution that defends and promotes the interests of the entire American economy. How so? By creating a U.S.-style court of law that would impartially mete out commercial justice but that could be used especially effectively by American diplomats highly skilled in working with such systems. One genuine contribution made by Peterson is reporting evidence that Lighthizer himself once apparently bought into this argument.

These views, however, completely ignore two related, alternative interpretations of the WTO’s creation that at deserve consideration at least because one of them is so regularly repeated by journalists and WTO supporters. That interpretation portrays the WTO as an arrangement that aimed primarily at restraining America’s ability to combat predatory foreign trade practices by enmeshing the United States in a simple majoritarian legal system in which all countries – including the vast majority of members who relied heavily on such mercantilism for their growth.

Chad Bown of the (pro-WTO) Peterson Institute for International Economics, one of the American media’s “go to” trade policy commentators made this point abundantly clear when he told The New York Times that the main foreign impetus for establishing the WTO was a determination to find ways of resisting America’s (successful) 1980s unilateral efforts to frustrate their trade predation and pry open their markets to U.S.-made goods.

Former WTO official (and U.S. Member of Congress) James Bacchus made a similar point earlier this year when he criticized Lighthizer (and other American economic nationalists) for their belief that the United States was better off under the pre-WTO world trade system.  Why?  Because it left the (democratically elected) U.S. government “free to go on the offence aggressively in trade by taking unilateral trade actions without any international legal constraint.”

The second, related alternative interpretation of the WTO’s creation focuses on the U.S. multinational corporations that dominated U.S. trade policymaking under Mr. Trump’s immediate predecessors: They strongly favored subjecting unilateral American power in trade diplomacy because their overseas operations – especially those geared toward supplying the American market – benefited immensely, often at the expense of domestic competitors, from many of the predatory foreign practices targeted by many American leaders who don’t shill for these offshoring interests. China’s longstanding beggar-its-neighbors currency policies have been only one example.

The Atlantic is rightly proud of its long history of publishing “iconic thinkers” and “covering ideas that matter.” Many more articles like Peterson’s, and it will also be known for hatchet jobs.

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: The U.S. Public Opinion Gap isn’t Only Partisan

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A recent (November 29) Pew Research Center poll on public attitudes toward foreign policy issues was a classic good news/bad news story – at least if you believe that the top priority of American foreign policy should be to promote the security and well-being of the American people.

On the one hand, that’s pretty much what the results show – that’s the good news. On the other hand, these commonsense positions prevail overwhelmingly because adults viewing themselves as either Republicans or Republican leaners hold them. That’s the bad news.  In other words, the views of Democrats and those leaning Democratic reveal a marked disregard for their nation’s self-preservation and prosperity.

According to Pew, 72 percent of all Americans say that “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorism” should “be a top foreign policy priority,” 71 percent would assign the same priority to “protecting jobs of American workers,” and 66 percent regard “preventing the spread” of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with similar urgency.

But now check out the partisan splits: On the terrorism issue, fully 84 percent of Republicans and their leaners regard it as a top foreign policy priority. Only 61 percent of Democrats and their leaners agree. So much, i.e., for the idea that Americans will never forget September 11. And remember – the question only described protection from terrorism as a top priority, not the top foreign policy priority.

On protecting American workers’ jobs, 81 percent of Republicans and their leaners would treat it as a priority, versus only 65 percent of Democrats and their leaners. I’m old enough to remember when the Democrat called themselves the party of working Americans.

The exception here is preventing the spread of WMD: Fewer (64 percent of Republicans and their leaners see it as a major priority than do Democrats and their leaners (68 percent), but these results are very close.

Many of the other Pew poll findings are not the slightest bit surprising. Principally, the biggest partisan divides on foreign policy issues come on “dealing with global climate change,” “reducing illegal immigration into the U.S.,” and “maintaining U.S. military advantage over all other countries.”

But here’s what’s more surprising. The Democrats, and especially their leaders, have enthusiastically assumed the mantle of globalism champions versus President Trump’s proclaimed America First approach. And a hallmark of globalism, whether on the right or the left ends of the national political spectrum, has been international activism. Liberals and conservatives generally disagree on where to place the emphasis (e.g., emerging transnational issues like climate change and migration versus more traditional security-oriented issues), but energetic engagement is favored by all.

Nonetheless, if you look carefully at the Pew results, Democrats and their leaners would place the “top priority” label on relatively few foreign policy issues. Indeed, only one such candidate for this status reaches the 70 percent mark with these groups – “improving relationships with allies.” And only four issues are seen as top priorities by 60 or more percent of Democrats and their leaners – as stated above, WMD (68 percent), protecting American jobs (65 percent), climate change (64 percent) and terrorism (61 percent). 

Overall, then, it’s easy to conclude from these and other findings in the Pew poll that Democrats and their leaners may be globalists, but they’re globalists who don’t seem to regard overseas-related challenges with overwhelming concern. Alternatively, they’re reluctant to support zeroing in on a limited (and arguably more manageable) set of goals. P.S., the relatively low score for climate change seems especially noteworthy given the importance progressive Democrats and others relatively far to the Left have attached to the idea of a “Green New Deal.”

It’s even easier to conclude that Republicans and their leaners are more committed to an America First-type approach. And it looks like this commitment is somewhat stronger. Their highest priority foreign policy issues are the aforementioned terrorism and job protection – where their priority scores are in the 80s percent. And their next three priorities are maintaining a national military edge (70 percent), reducing illegal immigration (68 percent), and preventing WMD spread (64 percent). For good measure, “getting other countries to assume more of the costs of maintaining world order” comes in at 56 percent.

However revealing these Pew results, they still left out two of the biggest questions for politicians and others trying to surmise which approaches to U.S. foreign policy, and what specific initiatives, would garner the most and least public support. The first is how genuine political independents view these issues. The second is how high a priority is assigned to preventing a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.

The importance attached to halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction points to great concern about this challenge. But the strong support expressed by Democrats and their leaners for shoring up America’s alliance relations indicates an especially serious lack of awareness on their part that indiscriminately extending nuclear umbrellas over U.S. allies has greatly increased the odds of such attack (principally from the newish NATO commitments to the highly vulnerable Baltic states, and the longstanding commitment to protect South Korea from North Korea and its new nuclear capabilities).

Of course, these Americans can’t entirely be blamed for this knowledge gap, as both U.S. leaders and the mainstream media continue to work overtime to mask the – growing – nuclear war risks inherent in the nation’s alliance system. (President Trump has been only a partial exception.) Hopefully 2019 will see some explicit, intellectually honest discussion of these dangers – and well before they reach critical mass.