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May 16th, 2021:

Weekend link dump for May 16

“A look at how TV and film productions are faking big crowds these days”.

“The end of the emergency phase of the pandemic is in sight in the United States, at least for now. But as the weight of the crisis is lifted, experts are also anticipating a long-term impact on people’s mental health.”

“Eventually, I want to do a post quantifying all the damage to national security Billy Barr did by thwarting an influence-peddling investigation into Rudy Giuliani in 2019. But first, I want to quantify four ways that Barr is known to have obstructed the investigation into Rudy, effectively stalling the investigation for over 500 days.”

“Here’s who’s most and least enthusiastic about getting vaccinated”.

“Wyoming is faced by a transition to renewable energy that’s gathering pace across America, but it has now come up with a novel and controversial plan to protect its mining industry—sue other states that refuse to take its coal.”

“No one has a greater interest than progressives in public safety and low rates of crime. Because rising rates of crime, especially violent crime, drive rightist politics as sure as night follows day. This is a demonstrable fact.”

RIP, Pete du Pont, former Delaware governor and Republican Presidential candidate.

“Well I can see why you don’t want to talk about Dominion Voting Systems because if you do, Newsmax could get sued and lose billions of dollars because these are lies.”

“All of which is to say: Family policy is one piece of the declining birth rates story. But it’s just one piece, and I’m not sure it’s wise, long-term, to justify good family policies by saying they’ll increase births. Because even if they don’t — and the evidence suggests that even the best family policies in the world may not nudge birth rates above replacement rate — they’re still good, necessary policies that women, children, and families need.”

Just say No to reality TV.

“There are four possibilities for holding an attorney general accountable if evidence suggests he did abuse his office to protect a president.”

What if Rudy Giuliani has already been pardoned, and we just don’t know it yet?

“Five Former IRS Chiefs Say Biden’s Plan Would Make Tax System ‘Far Fairer’”.

Using image metadata to infer Q’s location.

“A Closer Look at the DarkSide Ransomware Gang”, the group responsible for the attack on the Colonial Pipeline.

“I mean, if the prevailing theory is that unemployed workers are just sitting back and collecting UI bc it pays more than any job, how about going out and finding somebody who says that that is what they are doing? People have admitted far more embarrassing things to reporters.”

“Pipeline Hackers Say They’re ‘Apolitical,’ Will Choose Targets More Carefully Next Time“. No, that is not from The Onion.

RIP, Norman Lloyd, longtime actor best known for St. Elsewhere. He got his start on Broadway in 1927 and worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Judd Apatow.

While vaccine resistant people are mostly Republican, vaccine hesitant people are mostly non-voters.

“What we know is that when Trump attempted to subvert the election, a number of Republicans in key positions refused to go along. We know that, for the most part, those individuals won’t be able to stop a similar effort in 2024, and that the party has sent clear signals that standing up for the constitution and the rule of law was unacceptable.”

My early nominee for 2021 Headline of the Year: “Carole Baskin of ‘Tiger King’ blames Ted Cruz, John Cornyn for Houston’s missing tiger on CNN”.

“Joe Manchin’s surprisingly bold proposal to fix America’s voting rights problem”.

“There is a growing public wish to put COVID-19 behind us by eliminating visible signs that it still exists (e.g., mask wearing). But guidance driven by this magical thinking will cause unnecessary harm. Public health measures should protect the larger population, including those who cannot be or have not yet been vaccinated. This CDC guidance proffers individual advice at the expense of the goals of public health.”

“A lot of people may be wondering, with 8 vaccinated breakthrough cases on the Yankees – is this evidence the vaccines aren’t as effective as we thought? The short answer is no.”

“We have a few months to go before we reach ideal vaccination levels. For the sake of at-risk community members’ peace of mind, I’m happy to wear my mask outdoors and in non-intimate indoor environments for a little while longer.”

There’s lots of room to improve sexual harassment training at the Lege

They’re starting from a really low point.

You could miss both questions about sexual harassment and still pass the preventative training required every two years for Texas House staffers.

The online training, a roughly 15-minute lecture on sexual harassment sandwiched between lessons on anti-discrimination and workplace violence, mostly dwells on definitions, with a narrator explaining different types of sexual harassment. But it offers no real-life examples or hypothetical situations — both of which are key to an effective sexual harassment training, three experts who reviewed the video said.

At the end, staffers only need a 70 percent to pass the 10-question quiz. They can take it as many times as needed to pass.

“It felt like it was the very bare minimum that they could afford, and I just kind of viewed it as a box I needed to check,” said one staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they’d be punished for speaking out without authorization. “Did I feel that it was helpful and gave me resources and equipped me to be able to respond if I felt harassed or discriminated against? No. I did not feel that way.”

The online training is also emblematic of past efforts to address complaints of rampant sexual harassment and “predatory behavior” toward women who work at the Capitol — symptoms of what House Speaker Dade Phelan called “a culture that has been festering in this building far too long.”

Concerns were heightened by reports late last month that a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on a Capitol staffer during an off-site incident.

Phelan has said he is already working to revamp the training and make it an in-person class in the future. The first-year speaker has also established a new email for members, staffers and Capitol visitors to report misconduct anonymously: [email protected]

Late Tuesday, the House passed a bill mandating sexual harassment training for all elected officials and lobbyists; it now heads to the Senate for approval.

See here for some background on the date rape drug incident. The bill passed in the House is HB4661. A similar bill – SB2233 – was passed last week by the Senate, which also closes the lobbyist loophole. I expect at least one of these will make it to Greg Abbott’s desk.

As to how they could actually do better at the Lege, at least from a training perspective:

Three experts who reviewed the House’s online training said it only covers basic legal principles, leaving much room for improvement. Good training, they said, may prepare staffers for uncomfortable situations and give them resources to report misconduct. But the most important part of weeding out sexual harassment in the workplace is buy-in from leaders who hold bad actors accountable and treat survivors with respect and dignity.

“Training is one component, but if you don’t address the culture and all of the underlying issues, it’s almost a waste of time,” said Kelsey Medeiros, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has spent years researching workplace ethics and sexual harassment. “If you don’t have this environment around it that is going to support what people have just learned, it’s not going to work. It needs to be a culture change.”

Medeiros said the training is especially important in a place like the Legislature, a historically male-dominated work environment that could be conducive to harassment, especially of women.

The experts specialize in ethics and sexual harassment and reviewed the training at the request of Hearst Newspapers, which obtained the video through a public records request.

A switch to in-person training could also help with engagement, since the online format makes it easy for people to turn their attention elsewhere while a video plays, said Jessica Ramey Stender, senior counsel for workplace justice and public policy at Equal Rights Advocates, an activism group that focuses on gender-based issues in the workplace.

It also doesn’t help that some people don’t take the training at all: In some legislative offices, one employee will take the training and print out multiple certificates of completion for their colleagues, staffers said.

“One of the main reasons why sexual harassment trainings aren’t successful is that they can be pretty boring and dry and don’t hit home for people,” Stender said. “In this training, they launch right into the law, without talking about the kind of specific power dynamics that really play into and contribute to sexual harassment occurring in this context and make it more likely to occur.”

In the next iteration of the training, House leadership would do well to include more information about the ways a person experiencing harassment is affected by it, said Amy Averett, the director of the SAFE Institute program, the training and services arm of the Austin-based nonprofit SAFE that works to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct.

“It doesn’t give any context for how difficult it is and why people don’t speak up,” she said. “There wasn’t that kind of invitation or offering of support, kind of thinking about it from the survivor’s perspective.”

Best practices are pretty well known here, so there’s no excuse for getting this wrong. And again, while providing a robust education regimen and a safe way to report incidents is important, nothing will really change until the overall culture changes. It will take a lot more than better training to accomplish that.

Once again, bills to allow more gambling in Texas are dead

Same as it ever was.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

A high-profile push by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to bring casinos to Texas appears doomed at the state Capitol as this year’s legislative session begins to wind down.

Monday was the deadline for House committees to advance that chamber’s bills and joint resolutions, and the deadline passed without the State Affairs Committee voting out the Las Vegas Sands-backed House Joint Resolution 133. The legislation, which got a hearing last month, would let Texas voters decide whether to build “destination resorts” with casinos in the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas.

Identical legislation in the Senate has not even received a committee hearing, though its chances there were always slimmer given the resistance of the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“We have said from the beginning that we’re committed to Texas for the long haul,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands’ senior vice president of government relations, said in a statement given to The Texas Tribune on Monday evening. “We have made great strides this session and have enjoyed meeting with lawmakers about our vision for destination resorts and answering all the questions they have.”

Abboud added that the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive,” promising the company “will continue to build on this progress over the final days of the legislation session, and over the coming months, we will continue to build community support across the state to ultimately turn this vision into a reality.”

See here and here for the background. Similar bills to allow betting on sports, which is now a thing that can happen, are also dead. (Yes, yes, I know, nothing is All Dead in the Legislature until sine die, but trust me – there’s no Miracle Max chocolate-coated pill for these bills.)

I’ve been following legislative sessions for almost 20 years now, and I’m pretty sure that in every one, we’ve had an organized and often highly publicized push for some form of gambling legalization. Horse racing, slot machines, poker, casinos, and now sports betting, every session without fail. Sometimes economic misfortune has been cited as a reason why This Time It’s Different, sometimes some other economic reason is given. Lamentations about people going to Louisiana or Oklahoma to get their gamble on are always a part of the ritual, as is the dredging up of a poll showing popular support for whatever form of gambling is being touted. We used to have a Republican Speaker whose family money came from horse racing. This time, we had an investment from Sheldon Adelson, gambling mogul and Republican super-duper-donor. Each was supposed to be a way to crack open the door. And without fail, every session it all ends with an unceremonious thud.

I am as you know ambivalent about expanded gambling. I don’t have any philosophical opposition to it, but I also don’t believe it to be all that good for the state, as it comes with a truckload of externalities. I do think that much like expanded access to marijuana, it’s coming to Texas sooner or later, if only because enough people want them. In both cases, the simple reason why these measures (the pro-pot ones are also highly touted and written about in breathless fashion) don’t get anywhere is that Dan Patrick opposes them. For reasons unclear to me, that usually merits little more than a one-paragraph acknowledgement towards the end of the stories. Dan Patrick won’t be in charge forever – if we’re lucky, this will be his last regular session to lord over – and that’s one reason why I expect things to eventually change. Until then, the smart money will always be to completely disregard the puff pieces about the hot new gambling advocacy alliance and bet on nothing happening. If there’d been a line on that and I’d been smart enough to play it I could put both my kids through college on that by now.

Reopening schools and the COVID rate

Reopening schools led to more COVID cases. I mean, this is not a surprise, right?

When Texas schools returned to in-person education last fall, the spread of the coronavirus “gradually but substantially accelerated,” leading to at least 43,000 additional cases and 800 additional deaths statewide, according to a study released Monday.

The study was done by University of Kentucky researchers for the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and tracked weekly average COVID-19 cases in the eight weeks before and eight weeks after the state’s school districts sent students back to school in the fall.

The researchers said the additional cases they tracked after students began returning to schools represented 12% of the state’s total cases during the eight weeks after reopening and 17% of deaths.

They analyzed three things: school district reopening plans in every county, COVID-19 cases and deaths, and cellphone data that showed how adult movement changed once a community’s children went back to in-person learning.

Researchers chose Texas because, by the fall term, most schools around the country were still closed as Texas and a handful of other states were reopening in “less-than-ideal circumstances,” said Aaron Yelowitz, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the study’s researchers. The state also provided good conditions for pre-vaccine study, he added, since data was collected from May 2020 until January of this year, when vaccine rollout was still slow.

Although more adult Texans have since been vaccinated — about 30% had been fully vaccinated as of Saturday — Yelowitz said there are still communities in which the study’s findings could matter moving forward, like areas with more vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-resistant people.

My kids have been back at school since December. Their schools were limiting themselves to 25% capacity, the kid would eat lunch at their desks, I trusted they would all be wearing masks, and they wanted to go back. It was a risk, and we’ve made it through – my older daughter is now vaccinated, and daughter #2 will be getting her shot as soon as we can get them now that younger kids are eligible.

We can all debate the risk mitigation calculations people have made regarding their kids and in-person school. I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed to keep their kids home, and I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed their kids to go back to school. I do think it was wrong to not prioritize teachers and other school staff for vaccinations – they should have been in group 1B, along with grocery story employees and other essential workers – and I definitely disagree with any school district that eased or removed mask mandates. It’s a failure of our state government that we didn’t take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of school reopenings, and now we can put a number on that failure. I don’t expect anyone in state leadership to accept any responsibility for that. But we can do something about it.