At least Trump is learning on the job

A lot of news coverage this past week has taken note of Trump's policy reversals, several of which Trump himself has attributed to learning things he didn't know.

For example, during the campaign he declared that it would be easy to solve the U.S. health insurance problem to enable everyone to get high quality care at low cost, but when the House Republicans lacked the votes to pass Paul Ryan's plan -- which would actually have cost millions of people their insurance -- Trump told a meeting of American governors, "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated."

More recently, Trump thought China could deal with North Korea's nuclear threat, but as Trump told The Wall Street Journal, when he raised the subject with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Xi gave him an impromptu history of Chinese-Korean relations that changed his mind. "After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump said.

He's also decided that China isn't a currency manipulator after all, that NATO is "no longer obsolete" (inaccurately suggesting that this was based on changes at NATO), and so on.

All presidents learn on the job, but they usually start a lot farther ahead, and they usually surround themselves with experienced people. Trump is the only president in American history with no prior experience in government, and while some of his cabinet nominees and White House advisors have been decent if not ideal choices, too many are hopeless unqualified or outright cranks, and Trump is well behind naming people to fill a large number of jobs.

(For comparison, Obama, caricatured by Republicans as inexperienced, served three notably productive terms as an Illinois state senator before being elected to the U.S. Senate, and in both cases worked with both Democrats and Republicans to introduce and pass laws. Prior to that he'd been among other things a professor of constitutional law. As president he hired and listened to qualified and experienced people and he filled posts at a much higher rate than Trump, or George W. Bush for that matter.)

Maybe Trump really can learn on the job, though it's a little troubling to think of him leaning on the president of China for advice rather than American experts, or apparently basing a lot of his thinking on the last thing he saw on Fox News.

(Updated 2017 April 17 with some minor edits.)

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The rape kit backlog problem

A rape kit holds evidence collected in a hospital from the victim of a sexual assault. It includes physical evidence, photographs, and medical notes, and most critically it often contains DNA of the perpetrator of the crime. Collecting rape kit evidence costs money, and testing for DNA can cost a good deal more, as much as several thousand dollars. Consequently many rape kits remain in storage, untested. No one knows how many, but in some states there are thought to be thousands in every major city.

Yesterday NPR reported on a proposal before the Texas legislature to let applicants for driver's licenses to donate money to be used to test the kits. In the past the legislature has appropriated funds to pay to address the backlog, but otherwise the expense falls on local governments. It's mind-boggling that governments -- state or local -- would try to save a few bucks by basically ignoring a serious crime. Where the kits have been tested, numerous serial rapists have been identified and ultimately captured and prosecuted. Pursuing criminals is obviously one of the most basic jobs of government.

Texas isn't the only state with the problem, but Georgia, at least, has recently decided to do something about it. An effort to address the problem had been blocked by the chair of a state senate committee who refused even to hold hearings. (That senator is a Republican presumably concerned about the cost, and more surprisingly a woman.) Fortunately, a handful of good guys in the Georgia House of Representatives were determined to address the backlog, and despite major obstacles managed to squeezed a bill through at the very end of the session. The result was something to cheer about, and last month Full Frontal with Samantha Bee ran this encouraging report about the heroic and ultimately successful effort:


Link: https://youtu.be/s5eILKG5oSE

This may remind some of you of a report that surfaced during the 2008 presidential campaign. Back when Sarah Palin (John McCain's running mate) had been mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the town started charging rape victims and their medical insurance companies for the cost of collecting a rape kit (which at the time reportedly cost about $500 to $1200). The policy had been introduced as a cost-saving measure by Wasilla's police chief, Charlie Fallon, who had been hired by Palin to replace the previous chief, whom she had fired. Prior to the change of policy, the city of about 7000 residents had budgeted $15,000 a year to pay for rape kits. In 2000 the Alaska legislature took up a bill to prohibit Wasilla's practice, and despite Police Chief Fallon's vocal opposition it passed unanimously.

When this was reported during the 2008 campaign a spokesperson for Palin said that she had never been in favor of charging victims for rape kits, and there appears to be no evidence of her publicly favoring the policy. Nor did she publicly oppose it, even when the legislature was debating the bill to outlaw it. It seems unlikely that she was unaware of the policy, however, given news coverage and the fact that a mayor would presumably pay attention to changes in the town's budget. For more on this see Megan Capentier's piece from Jezebel, and also fact checks at Factcheck.org and Politifact and this article from CNN.

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Brian Keith Dalton on the notion that Hillary is as bad as Trump

In this video from last week, YouTuber Brian Keith Dalton reviews things Trump has done since taking office that Hillary Clinton clearly wouldn't have. This is mainly addressed to people who still try to pretend that there's no big difference between the two major party candidates.

(This post is basically a sequel to yesterday's on voting for third parties.)


Link: https://youtu.be/1JUkt3joiDs

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On voting for third parties

Back in November Kurt Eichenwald wrote a piece for Newsweek titled "The Myths Democrats Swallowed That Cost Them The Presidential Election." It makes for interesting reading, but what particularly struck me was the opening:

On Friday, I almost assaulted a fan of my work. I was in the Philadelphia International Airport, and a man who recognized me from one of my appearances on a television news show approached. He thanked me for the investigative reporting I had done about Donald Trump before the election, expressed his outrage that the Republican nominee had won and then told me quite gruffly, “Get back to work.”

Something about his arrogance struck me, so I asked, “Who did you vote for?”He replied, “Well, Stein, but—” I interrupted him and said, “You’re lucky it’s illegal for me to punch you in the face.” Then, after telling him to have sex with himself -- but with a much cruder term -- I turned and walked away.

A certain kind of liberal makes me sick. These people traffic in false equivalencies, always pretending that both nominees are the same, justifying their apathy and not voting or preening about their narcissistic purity as they cast their ballot for a person they know cannot win. I have no problem with anyone who voted for Trump, because they wanted a Trump presidency. I have an enormous problem with anyone who voted for Trump or Stein or Johnson—or who didn’t vote at all—and who now expresses horror about the outcome of this election. If you don’t like the consequences of your own actions, shut the hell up.

Eichenwald comes across as a bit of a jerk here, but I can sort of sympathize with him. I've voted for third-party candidates myself on occasion, but not in decades in any election when I knew there's was a chance of that affecting the outcome.

Here's Louis C.K. on the same general subject. The part I'm talking about starts 4 minutes and 45 seconds into the clip, but the preamble about his opinion of Trump is reasonably amusing:


Link: https://youtu.be/XNxG2PBVMlI

His point, which I agree with, is that the grown-up way to vote (or even not vote) is taking into account the possible real-world consequences rather than viewing voting only as a means of self-expression.

Yes, this very often means voting for the lesser of two evils, and yes, if you vote for the lesser of two evils you're still voting for evil. Big shock. If you don't vote for the lesser of two evils you're increasing the likelihood of electing the greater evil, especially in first-past-the-post voting systems. I understand the appeal of voting for your first choice (even if I question the judgment of people who picked Stein as a first choice), but attempts to offer a rational as opposed to emotional defense of it rarely succeed. No new party has been established in the U.S. since before 1860, and then only because sectional divisions tore apart the Whigs. Voting for third parties isn't going to make better major-party candidates appear. You can find plenty of people arguing the opposite on line, but I've never read such an argument that didn't amount to wishful thinking.

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How big a threat is terrorism?

The chief aim of terrorism, as its name implies, is to instill fear, and a lot of us have inadvertently aided the bad guys by exaggerating the threat.

Of course, this isn't to say that terrorism is nothing to worry about. We all remember September 11, 2001, when airliners hijacked by terrorists killed several thousand innocent people in the United States. That was by far the single worst terrorist strike in world history. In the many years since then, fewer than 200 persons total have been killed by terrorists in the United States. For comparison, the United States has recently averaged around 16,000 non-terrorist-related murders every year (see e.g. the latest FBI crime statistics), which is itself smaller than the annual average number who die from influenza or traffic accidents.

Many of us tend to think of terrorists as foreign Muslim extremists, but most of those attacking the U.S. have been citizens or legal residents typically acting on their own or in small groups, and many have not been Muslim. The second-worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, 1995's Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by far-right anti-government fanatics of no particular religious affiliation. The Atlanta Olympic Park bomber (who had previously exploded bombs at women's health clinics and a night club popular with lesbians), identified himself as a Christian and claimed to be motivated by a hatred of socialism and abortion. The 2015 mass murder at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC was carried out by an emotionally troubled young man reportedly radicalized by white supremacist websites. There have of course been Muslim terrorists as well, such as the person who shot over a hundred people, 49 fatally, at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando last June, the single most deadly terrorist attack in the United States since 9-11.

This is not to deny that there are Muslim extremist groups who embrace terrorism as a tactic. In fact, as M. Steven Fish wrote in his 2011 book from Oxford University Press, the majority of terrorist attacks world-wide in recent years have been carried out by Islamic terrorists. But for Americans and Europeans, he wrote in a more recent article, the risk of being killed by a terrorist in a given year is only about 1 in 3.5 million, and it's most likely the terrorist won't be a Muslim. In fact, Americans face a greater risk of being killed by their own furniture or television falling on them.

Nor, according to Fish, are Muslim societies particularly violence-prone.

Homicide rates in Muslim-majority countries average about two murders per annum per 100,000 people. In non-Muslim countries, the average rate is about 8 per 100,000. Murder rates fluctuate from year to year, but they are consistently low in Muslim societies. The homicide rate in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is 1 per 100,000—one-fifth the rate of the world’s largest Christian country, the United States. Christian countries live with murder rates that are unknown in the Muslim world. Brazilians and Mexicans are used to murder rates in the 15-25 range; the rate in Venezuela tops 50. Turks, Egyptians, Iranians, and Malaysians live with rates in the 2-4 range.

It's also important to recognize that mainstream Muslims condemn terrorism. See this long list of anti-terrorism statements from Muslim leaders compiled by Charles Kurzman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (which last night won the NCAA men's basketball tournament, I believe I heard somewhere, but that's another subject).

Kurtzman has extensively studied Islam and Arab culture and has very interesting things to say about Islam and terrorism, for example in this recent article about his work originally from The Deseret News. Kurzman notes that in 2016, the percentage of people killed by Muslim terrorists in the U.S. was smaller than the percentage of Muslims killed in the U.S. for being Muslim. (Both percentages were microscopic.) Even in the Middle East, where terrorist attacks are much more common, terrorist leaders from Osama bin-Laden to Ayman al-Zawahiri have complained about how hard it is to find Muslims willing to join their movements.

A January 30 blog post by Nick Gillespie on the website of libertarian-conservative Reason magazine points out that no Americans -- zero -- have been killed by foreign born refugees in the United States since the Refugee Act of 1980. That's partly because it's so hard to into the country as a refugee. For the most part, the U.S. chooses which refugees to admit rather than refugees picking the U.S. Even the danger of terrorists coming to the U.S. on tourist visas, which are far easier to get, present a very small risk in realistic terms.

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The latest on North Carolina's bathroom bill

On Thursday the North Carolina legislature finally repealed the state's notorious "bathroom bill," also known as HB2. It was unfortunately not a clean repeal, in that the new law reimposes some objectionable restrictions. But it does at least do away with HB2 and its most ridiculous provisions.

The repeal law (link to PDF) is less than a page long and does three things:

  • Section 1 repeals HB2 and a separate related law (see below for details).
  • Section 2 prohibits localities and state agencies from imposing their own bathroom access rules.
  • Sections 3 and 4 prohibit local ordinances against discrimination in public accommodations and private-sector employment until 2020.

Some supporters and opponents of the law have argued that the repeal accomplished nothing, but as discussed below this is not quite correct. Some background:

Last year the state's largest city, Charlotte, passed an ordinance that would among other things have allowed transgender persons to use whichever restroom, men's or women's, they found most comfortable. Some people were afraid that this would license male sexual predators to invade women's restrooms and dressing rooms. In reality, existing laws against sexual assault, "peeping toms," and the like would not have been affected by the ordinance, and laws and ordinances effectively identical to Charlotte's exist in many places, such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, without leading to the scenarios envisioned opponents of Charlotte's ordinance.

Despite that, the highly gerrymandered, and overwhelmingly Republican, state legislature went into panic mode and held a 12-hour emergency special session devoted to the supposed crisis, during which, without public hearings or time to consider the matter rationally, it passed a badly drafted House Bill 2 (HB2), which was that same evening signed into law by Republican Governor Pat McCrory. At that point its formal designation became Session Law 2016-3 (link).

Most notoriously, HB2 decreed that anyone using a multiple-occupancy restroom, shower facility, or dressing room in a state or local government building (including a public school) use one corresponding to the gender on his or her birth certificate. Private businesses or organizations were authorized to set their own policies. As explained in this previous post and this one, the sloppy wording of HB2 actually defeated the original purpose.

HB2 also forbade any local nondiscrimination ordinances (which among other things eliminated a number of local protections for veterans). In addition, it was worded in a way to end the right of individuals to sue in state courts for illegal discrimination because of race, religion, national origin, etc. (Note that there is no North Carolina or federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or the like; HB2 did not change that either way.)

The last provision was opposed by the Republican governor and was repealed last year by a bill known as HB169 (officially Session Law 2016-99; see this link). Unfortunately the repeal reduced the time to file such lawsuits.

As a practical matter, the bathroom provisions of HB2 proved unenforceable. Law enforcement agencies pointed out that they could not be expected to stand guard outside of restrooms demanding to see birth certificates, and in any case the law imposed no penalties for violators. At most it might have been possible to charge someone with trespassing. (See e.g. this report from NPR on the practical difficulties of enforcing this misconceived provision.) Moreover, a preliminary federal injunction (PDF) suggested that with respect to educational institutions the law was likely in violation of Title IX given precedents in the governing Fourth Circuit.

There was widespread opposition to HB2 both within the state and nationally. Religious and secular human rights organizations called for the law's repeal. Popular entertainers canceled performances or donated ticket proceeds to LGBTQ rights organizations. Multiple businesses suspended or canceled plans to expand in the state, and various sports organizations (including NASCAR) strongly opposed the law and in several cases moved major events such as tournaments out of the state. Even Chris Wallace, in an interview with Gov. McCrory on Fox News, pointed out that the law was supposed to address a problem that doesn't exist in reality. See this previous post for more on conservative opposition to HB2.

Public sentiment grew increasingly negative, and Gov. McCrory was the only governor seeking reelection in 2016 to be turned out of office, which polls suggest was largely a consequence of his support for HB2.

The immediate impetus for the repeal was an ultimatum from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which threatened to pull major games from the state for years go come. The repeal encompasses the entirety of HB2 and also repeals the separate law imposing tighter limits on filing private lawsuits against employment discrimination. Unfortunately, as noted above, Section 2 of the repeal law blocks ordinances like Charlotte's. But what seems less noticed is that (whether the legislature intended it or not) the wording of that section also appears to forestall local attempts to impose an HB2-like bathroom requirement on transgender persons and hence may actually strengthen transgender rights. The general restriction on local antidiscrimination laws in Section 3 is obnoxious, but Section 4 terminates that provision in 2020. Incidentally, only two other states attempt to forbid local civil rights ordinances: Tennessee and Arkansas. (See this article for more.)

In summary, the current situation is far from ideal, but it is less awful than some have portrayed. Furthermore, the experience shows that public opinion can respond to information campaigns and that even North Carolina's awful legislature responds to pressure. If that pressure is maintained, and especially if responsible voters throw the rascals out, matters can be further improved.

For other posts on this blog referencing HB2, see this link.

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