Archives: 03/2018

A Trump-Kim Meeting — Fraught With Risk and Opportunity

Just over a year into a presidency already full of unusual precedents, President Trump has agreed to a North Korean offer, communicated through South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, to meet face to face with Kim Jong-un. Though such meetings have been bandied about in the past, no sitting U.S. president has ever met with a sitting North Korean Supreme Leader. It is a prospect fraught with risk and opportunity.

Kim reportedly made this offer along with a statement that North Korea is “committed to denuclearization.” He left ambiguous what he would want in return, though, according to Chung, it involves a commitment that South Korea and the United States “not repeat the mistakes of the past.” Given what Pyongyang has previously demanded, this likely refers to upholding our side of any bargain, and possibly an end to what they call America’s “hostile policy” (i.e., our alliance with South Korea, proximate U.S. military assets, joint military drills, and economic sanctions).

It is a bewildering and unexpected development. Just a few weeks ago, Kim and Trump were trading barbs about how stupid the other is and making explicit threats of nuclear aggression. Answers to a few preliminary questions are in order.

These Kids Today: The Long History of Complaining About Violent Entertainment

On Thursday, President Trump held a meeting to discuss how and whether violent video games affect gun violence, particularly school shootings. Before getting into the details of this claim, perhaps we should take a step back and read a classic fairy tale from 1812, printed in the Brothers Grimm’s Nursery and Household Tales and titled “How the Children Played Butcher with Each Other”:

A man once slaughtered a pig while his children were looking on. When they started playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other: “You be the little pig, and I’ll be the butcher,” whereupon he took an open blade and thrust it into his brother’s neck. Their mother, who was upstairs in a room bathing the youngest child in the tub, heard the cries of her other child, quickly ran downstairs, and when she saw what had happened, drew the knife out of the child’s neck and, in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the child who had been the butcher. She then rushed back to the house to see what her other child was doing in the tub, but in the meantime it had drowned in the bath. The woman was so horrified that she fell into a state of utter despair, refused to be consoled by the servants, and hanged herself. When her husband returned home from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that he died shortly thereinafter.  

The end.

Violent entertainment is nothing new, nor is the older generation complaining about it. In usual Trump fashion, he claimed to be “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” But it’s not true. People all over the world play video games, especially young boys, and there’s no resulting correlation to acts of violence. Actually, some studies have shown that violent video games might reduce crime by keeping young men off the street and glued to their TVs. 

In 2011, the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, holding that California’s 2005 law banning the the sale of “violent” video games to minors violated the First Amendment. Cato filed a brief in that case that documented the history of complaints about uniquely violent entertainment and the effectiveness of industry self-regulation–such as the MPAA movie ratings, the ESRB ratings for video games, and the Comics Code–over ham-handed government oversight. The Court cited Cato’s brief in its opinion.

Due to Brown, any federal law regulating violent video games is likely to be struck down by the courts. That doesn’t mean, however, that Trump and other government agents can’t make things uncomfortable for the industry. Most likely, we’ll just hear a bunch of complaining about “these kids today” from older generations. Everything old is new again, particularly when new forms of entertainment come around that are foreign to older generations.

Under the Guise of Security, Trump Sets a Protectionist Fire

Protecting citizens from threats domestic and foreign is the most important function of government.  Among those very threats is a government willing to concoct and aggrandize dangers in order to rationalize abuses of power, which Americans have seen in spades since 9/11. Justifying garden variety protectionism as an imperative of national security is the latest manifestation of this kind of abuse, and it will lead inexorably to a weakening of U.S. security.

The tariffs on imported steel and aluminum that President Trump formalized this afternoon derive, technically, from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.  The statute authorizes the president to respond to perceived national security threats with trade restrictions. While the theoretical argument to equip government with tools to mitigate or eliminate national security threats by way of trade policy may be reasonable, this specific statute does little to ensure the president conducts a rigorous threat analysis or applies remedies that are proportionate to any identified threat.  There are no benchmarks for what constitutes a national security threat and no limits to how the president can respond. 

In delegating this authority to the president, Congress in 1962 (and subsequently) simply assumed the president would act apolitically and in the best interest of the United States.  The consequences of this defiance of the wisdom of the Founders—this failure to imagine the likes of a President Trump—could be grave.

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Mythbusting Paid Leave Statistics

A favorite statistic cited by paid family leave activists is thoroughly misleading. Activists regularly argue that only 15 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, relying on a Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) number. Just this week, the figure was cited in a Harvard Business Review article, a WSJ letter, and a Bloomberg Businessweek report on Leaning In, among other places.

But the BLS figure doesn’t agree with federal data sets or national survey results, including the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), FMLA Worksite and Employee Surveys, Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), or the National Survey of Working Mothers. Estimates of access to paid leave by source are detailed in the table below.

Table: Estimates of Access to Paid Parental Leave

 

Source Paid Leave Figure Details
FMLA Worksite and Employee Surveys 57% of women and 55% of men received pay for parental leave from any source 2012 Data
National Survey of Working Mothers 63% of employed mothers said their employer provided paid maternity leave benefits 2013 Survey
Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) 50.8% of working mothers report using paid leave of some kind before or after child birth 2006 - 2008 Data
Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) Dating back to 1994, on average 45% of working women took parental leave received some pay 1994 - 2014 Data

The difference between the BLS figure and other federal and national figures is considerable. For example, the BLS figure is more than 40 percentage points lower than the FMLA figure, and there is a 50 percentage point spread between the BLS number and the National Survey of Working Mothers number.

That is partly because BLS uses a peculiar definition of paid family leave that excludes most types of paid leave that can be used for family reasons. The particulars are described in greater detail here. As a result, the BLS figure is an extreme outlier even compared to other federal data sources.

As an extreme outlier, the BLS figure is misleading in the extreme. To engage in an accurate conversation about the experience of working parents, activists and policy makers should abandon it. 

What If Newspapers Reported the Real News about Human Progress?

In his new book Enlightenment Now and in his McLaughlin Lecture at the Cato Institute this week, Steven Pinker made the point that we may fail to appreciate how much progress the world has made because the news is usually about bad and unusual things. For instance, he said, quoting Max Roser, if the media truly reported the important changes in the world, “they could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years.”

More Americans Die in Animal Attacks than in Terrorist Attacks

Comparing the risk of dying in a terrorist attack to a common household accident like slipping in the bathtub is inappropriate.  After all, inanimate objects like bathtubs do not intend to kill, so people rightly distinguish them from murderers and terrorists.  My research on the hazard posed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil focuses on comparing that threat to homicide, since both are intentional actions meant to kill or otherwise harm people.  Homicide is common in the United States, so it is not necessarily the best comparison to deaths in infrequent terror attacks.  Yesterday, economist Tyler Cowen wrote about another comparable hazard that people are aware of, that is infrequent, where there is a debatable element of intentionality, but that does not elicit nearly the same degree of fear: deadly animal attacks.

Cowen’s blog post linked to an academic paper by medical doctors Jared A. Forrester, Thomas G. Weiser, and Joseph H. Forrester who parsed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mortality data to identify those whose deaths were caused by animals in the United States. According to their paper, animals killed 1,610 people in the United States from 2008 through 2015. Hornets, wasps, and bees were the deadliest and were responsible for 29.7 percent of all deaths, while dogs were the second deadliest and responsible for 16.9 percent of all deaths. 

The annual chance of being killed by an animal was 1 in 1.6 million per year from 2008 through 2015.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was 1 in 30.1 million per year during that time.  The chance of being murdered by a native-born terrorist was 1 in 43.8 million per year, more than twice as deadly as foreign-born terrorists at 1 in 104.2 million per year.  The small chance of being murdered in an attack committed by foreign-born terrorists has prompted expensive overreactions that do more harm than good, such as the so-called Trump travel ban, but address smaller risks than those posed by animals.

Lessons for the Opioid Epidemic from Meth

As the nation remains fixated on the opioid epidemic, methamphetamine is making a resurgence. Meth is less expensive than heroin, and it is gaining users who fear opioid overdoses.

Meth is not new; it burst onto the scene in the early 1990, as the crack epidemic waned.  Synthesized from readily available chemicals, meth provided a cheaper, homemade alternative to other drugs. As use increased, legislators and law enforcement officials took note.

The first major legislation targeting meth was the 1996 Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act. Passed unanimously by the Senate and by 386-34 in the House, the legislation required that individuals buying and selling chemicals used in meth production register with the federal government, which sought to track such chemicals and reduce their supply to manufactures.

Despite this legislation, meth use – and fatal overdoses – increased. In response, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 (officially enacted in March 2006), which limited over-the-counter sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and required retailers to log customer purchase of such drugs. Simultaneously, federal and state authorities were instituting restrictions on pharmaceutical amphetamines including Ritalin and Adderall. And many states instituted prescription drug monitoring programs to reduce the availability of prescription amphetamines acquired legally and resold on the black market.

While well-intentioned, these policies may have induced users to substitute from expensive prescription drugs to cheap, readily available meth. And this switch had the usual impact of restrictions on access.

Overdose deaths related to methamphetamine initially declined after the crackdown on prescription access, but by 2016, the meth overdose rate had reached four times its level a decade ago. The likely explanation is that restrictions pushed users from prescription versions to black market meth, where uncertainty about purity generated increasing overdoses.

 Methamphetamine Overdose Death Rates

As the opioid crisis worsens and calls for supply restrictions increase, policymakers should consider how the same approach failed to halt – indeed exacerbated – the meth epidemic.

 

Research assistant Erin Partin contributed to this blogpost.