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Monday, April 30, 2012

Tidbits from La Seduction: dinner with uncuddly Rupert, titters over DSK

Elaine Sciolino's La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, published all of eleven months ago, sheds occasional interesting sidelights on events of the past year. One is the m.o. of Rupert Murdoch.  Writing of the strenuous efforts of Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador to the U.S. during the runup to war in Iraq, to repair France's image in the U.S. after the French declined to join Bush's invading coalition. Here's Levitt's version of dinner with Rupert:
Most of his work went nowhere. The most brutal attacks came from Fox News, which night after night drove home the point that America had saved France from tyranny in World War II and that the French were traitorous ingrates and supporters of terrorism. At one point former secretary of state Henry Kissinger tried to mend fences by arranging a dinner at his home for Levitte and Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox. “I asked Murdoch to stop the French bashing,” Levitte claimed. “He looked at me coldly and said, ‘As long as it sells, I will continue’ I spent the rest of the evening charming his lovely wife, Wendy  (p. 268).
I guess we only have Levitt's side of this conversation, but it does sound like the brutal old huckster, doesn't it?  So glad he's captured one of this country's two major parties as well as playing master puppeteer to the British government for two or three decades.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

CC Justices Kennedy, Roberts: A healthcare attorney details the catastrophic coverage options in the ACA

Re my monthlong quest (begun 3/31) to highlight the catastrophic coverage options in the Affordable Care Act that the plaintiffs labored successfully to obfuscate: a healthcare attorney, keeper of the tumblr Ragbatz, apparently picked this dynamic up in real time as news emerged from the 3/27 oral arguments and wrote on 3/28:
Imagine answering Scalia’s yammering that the mandate should have been limited to catastrophic plans, with the short answer that, in essence, it was limited to catastrophic plans.  The Affordable Care Act requires insurers participating in an exchange to offer a “Bronze” level of coverage that has a higher deductible than “Silver” and “Gold” offerings.  The levels of the deductibles are determined by an actuarial formula; for 2014, a leading actuarial company has projected that the deductible in “Bronze” category would be $6,350.  Those healthy but cash-strapped youngsters Scalia is worried about are, under Obamacare, free to choose to a Bronze plan and thus to self-insure below that level.

Furthermore, community rating under the ACA permits age-related premium rates.  The youngest cohort can expect to pay a third of the amount charged to the pre-Medicare cohort.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Israel vs. Iran: the kook's on the other foot

Soaked up any sage talk lately about whether the Iranian leadership is "rational"?  Two high-level  voices from Israel's military and security services have weighed in recently on questions of rationality and religious fervor, and their comments mesh interestingly.

First, Benny Gantz, head of the Israeli Defense Force, told Haaretz, in an interview published on April 25, that he did not think Iran would build a nuclear bomb -- not now, anyway. He scoped out Khamenei's thinking in some detail:
As long as its facilities are not bomb-proof, "the program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."
And now, Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel's internal security service, casts a cold eye on current Israeli leadership. The Times' Jodi Rudoren reports:

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kaiser weighs in: the ACA offers catastrophic coverage to all comers

As I have noted several times this month, the plaintiffs seeking to get the Affordable Care Act struck down have based their case in large part on assertions that the individual mandate will force masses of healthy young people to buy coverage far in excess of their needs, exploiting them as "golden geese" to fund insurance for older and sicker citizens. I have pointed out that the ACA in fact includes a catastrophic insurance option not only for all adults under 30 but for others who can show financial hardship or are otherwise exempt from the mandate. The AP's Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar chimed in with an article citing several experts asserting that the cheapest class of plans to be offered in the insurance exchanges, the "bronze" plans, also offer extremely limited coverage -- just 60% of an average policyholder's expenses -- and can also be reasonably deemed "catastrophic." Steve Benen and Jonathan Cohn have also taken up the point.

Now cometh the Kaiser Family Foundation -- perhaps prompted by Cohn, who has written for them -- with a detailed breakdown of the coverage levels and likely deductibles to be faced by policyholders selecting the various levels of coverage made available by the ACA.  Seconding the experts cited by Alonso-Zaldivar, Kaiser deems the "bronze" plans tantamount to catastrophic coverage:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

If you were a Supreme Court justice...

Joan Biskupic, on of Reuters' Supreme Court reporters, has a circumspect article about how vain it is to speculate about how the Court will rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Of course, salted into the nutritious helping of info about the Court's august procedures for guarding confidentiality are two bits of well-sourced speculation, one on each side.  The second set me off on a thought experiment. Here it is:

Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer and founder of the website SCOTUSblog, said he briefly thought he was observing a sign when he argued a case before the nine justices on April 16 - their first day back after the late March healthcare hearing. When the justices ascended the bench, Goldstein thought the four liberals seemed in particularly fine moods.

He caught himself thinking - only fleetingly - that their good spirits might have meant a majority had voted to uphold the law. "But," added Goldstein, "it flashed through my mind just as quickly that what I saw meant nothing."
Four justices, one mood. That set me thinking about the degree to which actual legal arguments are likely to have an effect. So then I thought: suppose I were one of the nine -- with my existing political propensities. Before I'd read any of the case pleadings, how open would I be to persuasion by the plaintiffs?

Pulping the bully approach to presidential leadership, cont.

Not for the first time, Ezra Klein laments the Obama administration's loss of control over the deficit debate from early 2011 to the present:

The problem the White House has on the deficits issue is that their coolness towards Simpson-Bowles lost them a lot of credibility on this issue. Most Americans may not know what they want to do about the deficit. But they tend to know they want to do something. And Simpson-Bowles, rightly or wrongly, became the symbol for doing something. When the Obama administration didn't follow up on it, and then Ryan and the Republicans were first out the door with a major deficit-reduction plan, it created the sense that, deep down, the White House didn't really want to do anything on deficits, that they were just doing the least necessary to check the box.
It may be true that Obama lost credibility on deficit reduction in 2011. But Klein is omitting a fact he was well aware of at the time: in early 2011, Obama faced a choice. He could "lead" by embracing Bowles-Simpson or some variant, prompting Republicans to excoriate it, and thus setting the stage for competing plans to frame the 2012 election -- or he could "lead" by actually cutting a deal with Republicans, which would require some caginess about his own position. That's because, as Klein is well aware and as Obama himself openly avowed, presidential advocacy polarizes.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The individual mandate is a piece of Cake

Thinking about insurance mandates, and the limited and disputed analogy between requiring people to insure their cars and requiring them to insure their bodies (and minds), a lyric argument for the defense came to mind. It's from the group Cake:
So we think that we're important
And we think that we make sense
And we think there's something better on the other side of this fence
And you can soak your bread in gravy
You can soak your bread in soup
But the car that you are driving doesn't really belong to you
So you know you'll always be waiting
Always be waiting
For someone else to call .. (my italics, natch).
According to dream lore, horses stand in for our bodies in dreams, and in this century the family Camry stands in for the old gray mare. We own our cars (nonmetaphorically), and for most purposes, relative at least to other people, we "own" our bodies -- but both can incur costs, willy nilly, that others will have to bear if we are not insured. Failing to insure our mortal coils before we shuffle them off is quite as costly to our fellows as failing to insure our vehicles.

Because all of us are active in the healthcare market, ruled  the U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit, upholding the individual mandate in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, "self-insuring" is as much an economic activity as purchasing insurance (the two concurring judges also held that the distinction between activity and inactivity as a focus of Congressional regulation has no Constitutional validity).   Judge Boyce Martin, writing the majority opinion, held:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Verrilli's 'limiting principles' for the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act

In a post I put up immediately following the March 27 oral arguments in the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the individual mandate, I argued that Solicitor General Donald Verrilli's difficulty articulating a "limiting principle" to the government's right to mandate purchases stemmed in large part from constant interruption by the justices -- and that Verrilli did eventually produce the demanded limiting principle (two, in fact).

Oral argument is a cauldron of conflict -- at least, this one was. What came out of Verrilli in broken syntax and shorthand on March 27 is stated with admirable precision in his reply brief to the plaintiffs' briefs against the constitutionality of the mandate.  Here I'd like to compare the oral and written.

Here's the first principle as stated in oral argument:
JUSTICE ALITO: Before you move on, could you express your limiting principle as succinctly as you possibly can? Congress can force people to purchase a product where the failure to purchase the product has a substantial effect on interstate commerce, if what? If this is part of a larger regulatory scheme?

GENERAL VERRILLI: We've got -

JUSTICEALITO: Is that it?

GENERAL VERRILLI: We've got -

JUSTICE ALITO: Is there anything more?

GENERAL VERRILLI: We got two and they are -- they are different. Let me state them. First, with respect to the comprehensive scheme. When Congress is regulating -- is enacting a comprehensive scheme that it has the authority to enact that the Necessary and Proper Clause gives it the authority to include regulation, including a regulation of this kind, if it is necessary to counteract risks attributable to the scheme itself that people engage in economic activity that would undercut the scheme. It's like -- it's very much like Wickard in that respect. Very much like Raich in that respect ( p. 44).
The mandate "is necessary to counteract risks attributable to the scheme itself that people engage in economic activity that would undercut the scheme" -- that is, obtaining medical care they cannot pay for because they are uninsured. Compare the tighter formulation in the reply brief:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Another 'limiting principle' to individual mandate: states can opt out

In the Supreme Court arguments over the constitutionality of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, the justices who seemed hostile to the mandate challenged Solicitor General Donald Verrilli to articulate a "limiting principle" -- a rule that would place boundaries on Congress's right to mandate purchases. Verrilli did so, rather awkwardly:
When Congress is regulating -- is enacting a comprehensive scheme that it has the authority to enact that the Necessary and Proper Clause gives it the authority to include regulation, including a regulation of this kind, if it is necessary to counteract risks attributable to the scheme itself that people engage in economic activity that would undercut the scheme.
Much of the oral argument focused on the plaintiff's claims that the mandate exceeded the scope necessary to fulfill this purpose --  that it was was "forcing healthy individuals to immediately start paying inflated premiums that exceed their actuarial risk," as Michael Carvin's brief put it -- an argument that seemed to make a deep impression on Justices Alito, Roberts and Scalia. I have argued in several posts that the drafters of the ACA in fact took care on several fronts to limit the scope of the mandate to the minimum required to create a viable private market for affordable health insurance (e.g., by providing catastrophic coverage and limited-coverage options)-- in effect, that the mandate is self-limiting. I have further suggested that Justice Kennedy, who seemed troubled by the scope of the mandate but also recognized  the need to draw the relatively young and healthy into the insurance market, might either recognize the relatively narrow scope in his ruling or divide the baby by limiting the mandate to catastrophic coverage -- an argument developed with considerably more legal precision by Marty Lederman, who served in Obama's Office of Legal Counsel.

Here I want to focus on an element in Donald Verrilli's reply brief  that provides a complementary path to arguing either that the mandate is already sufficiently limited or that it might be further limited.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning, pleasure, identity, mortality

Inspired by evidence that learning new tasks builds new neural connections in mice's brains, Andrew Sullivan free associates:
I find this fascinating because it reflects what one might call a conservative truth: we become what we do. We are not Etch-A-Sketches, blank slates on whom a new abstract idea can simply and easily be applied to turn our lives around. We are constantly evolving organisms, each choice leading to another fate and another choice and all of these creating us, slowly, by will and habit. One is reminded of Orwell's assertion that "at age 50, every man has the face he deserves" (something he conveniently avoided by dying in his forties). I'm also reminded of Pascal's rather controversial dictum that merely practicing faith will instill it. Acts become thoughts which become acts, and habits become personality which becomes character. There can be no total rupture - which is why I am not a fan of "born-again" Christianity. It only takes if it reorients practice.

It's interesting to me that Andrew turned this information into an affirmation of faith, because for me it had the opposite effect -- not logically, but triggering a throwaway line from Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature that's troubled me enough to keep bubbling to the surface:
Today we know that consciousness depends, down to the last glimmer and itch, on the physiological activity of the brain (Kindle location 10106).

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Obama moved 'from hope to hardball' last September

Cheering Obama's turn to partisan combat, Noam Scheiber draws some striking parallels between the political trajectories of the Clinton and Obama presidencies -- starting with a hope for bipartisanship, going through the meat-grinder of passing key legislation with zero Republican support, getting creamed in the midterms. But then he moves to a false -- or rather, distorted -- contrast:
The major difference between the two after the midterms was their posture toward Republicans. Clinton went for the jugular early. By August of 1995, he had launched a major ad campaign attacking the Republican Congress for its designs on Medicare and vowing to defend the program from $270 billion in cuts. Almost daily beginning in late 1995, Clinton and his surrogates repeated their mantra of protecting “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment”—that is, the programs Republicans threatened to decimate. The White House even had a nickname for the refrain: “M2E2.” “It wasn’t elegant—I wouldn’t etch it in marble. But people fucking knew what was at stake,” recalls Paul Begala, a former Clinton strategist. When Bob Dole emerged as the Republican presidential nominee the following spring, he had little hope of separating himself from his party’s government-slashing ethos.

Obama, on the other hand, spent more of his third year striking conciliatory notes as he negotiated with the GOP over the deficit. With the exception of a tough, high-profile speech that April, his White House consciously avoided flaying Republicans over their proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. He didn’t dwell on their anti-government nihilism until a speech in December, and even then he did so in broad strokes.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jonathan Cohn tells the justices: the ACA has catastrophic coverage options

Jonathan Cohn, one of the foremost bloggers on the U.S. healthcare system and healthcare reform, has taken up the cudgels regarding the Supreme Court justices' apparent ignorance of catastrophic coverage options provided in the Affordable Care Act.  While Cohn is wary of catastrophic coverage on the merits, he regards the "bronze" plans, the cheapest option in the subsidized healthcare exchanges, as providing it, noting too that the ACA allows people under 30 (and others exempt from the mandate, I would add, e.g. those showing financial hardship) to buy catastrophic coverage more strictly construed.

Cohn does not think that the availability of catastrophic coverage in the ACA ought to matter on the legal merits, and there I would take partial issue with him. He writes:
Even if the Affordable Care Act didn’t have a catastrophic coverage option and established a higher standard for benefits, you could make the same constitutional arguments for it—that the law is a perfectly reasonable exercise of federal power to tax, regulate interstate commerce, and do what is “necessary and proper” for carrying out its duties.  
That might be true in a depoliticized legal vacuum.  But the plaintiffs' arguments plainly made a deep impression on Alito, Robert, Scalia -- and, somewhat more equivocally, on Kennedy, all of whom voiced various aspects of those arguments. And Michael Carvin's brief on the individual mandate hammered home relentlessly the claim that the mandate was "forcing healthy individuals to immediately start paying inflated premiums that exceed their actuarial risk" (p. 38); that the mandate would "compel the uninsured into engaging in economic activity that is harmful for them but beneficial to third parties" (p. 1), etc. etc. -- and the conservative justices seem to have bought this argument.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hey, Simon Johnson agrees with me!

A little, sort of.

I shared this shower musing about a year ago:
why not index tax rates to GDP growth?  The government has no trouble indexing the yield on TIPS to inflation. Why not set a baseline tax rate that's operative at, say, 3% GDP growth, adjustable down in a set ratio all the way to, say, a 3% contraction, and adjustable up all the way to, say 6% annual growth? Economic velocity will determine our GAIT (Growth Adjusted Income Tax).
Yesterday, contemplating the possible gridlock-induced expiration of all the Bush tax cuts (no way...), Johnson proposed:

Paint Romney as a conservative who's flipped his last flop

Some see a contradiction in the Obama camp trying to paint Mitt Romney both as a flip-flopping opportunist and as an extreme conservative.  If it comes down a choice, both sides of the equation have their detractors. Political scientist John Sides has suggested that the flip-flop charge won't resonate (a view seconded by Kevin Drum), while Romney supporter Saul Anuzis asserts, in an article by Washington Post reporter Amy Gardner framing the two attack approaches, “Mitt Romney does not scare people. He’s not a scary candidate. Regardless of his views or how he’s expressed them, he’s always been very thoughtful, rational."

That is true. But the point is not that Romney is inherently a raving lunatic but that he's let the demands of his hard-right party remake him.  I  have argued before that the two approaches -- Romney as opportunist and Romney as ultraconservative vehicle -- are complementary.  And it seems to me that Obama campaign spox Ben LaBolt, quoted by Gardner, combines them effectively:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Attention, Barney Frank: Obama was the partisan warrior when it counted most

Scott Lemieux does a nice job rebutting Barney Frank's contention that health care reform was an inevitable loser for Democrats (and strategic error for Obama) because "When you tell [people with health insurance] that you’re going to extend health care to people who don’t now have it, they don’t see how you can do that without hurting them." So Frank told  Jason Zegerle in a long debriefing published this week. Lemieux, bemused that the normally combative and often courageous Frank would avoid that heavy lift, retorts:
This is – uncharacteristically — essentially an argument against most progressive change. Anything that challenges privilege and disrupts the status quo carries risk and disrupts people’s sensitivities.
Frank's anomalous pusillanimity with respect to health reform was evident at the crisis hour when Scott Brown won the special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January 2010, ending the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority and thereby endangering reconciliation of the passed House and Senate versions of what became the Affordable Care Act.  Frank led the cut-and-run chorus, putting out  this statement on January 19:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cold War 2.0?

Is a tempting alternative to western democracy gaining currency in the developing world? So I wondered when I read the warning in yesterday's Times by Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, of growing media suppression across Africa:
As Africa’s economies grow, an insidious attack on press freedom is under way. Independent African journalists covering the continent’s development are now frequently persecuted for critical reporting on the misuse of public finances, corruption and the activities of foreign investors. ...
Keita attributes the trend in large part to
the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Ever since, China has been deepening technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Malcolm X's enduring indictment

When I was in 7th grade I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and wrestled a bit with the notion of white man as devil -- not accepting it outright, but feeling myself being viewed that way.  The dedication to the original edition, which I must have picked up in Alex Haley's epilogue to my paperback, made enough of an impression that I very nearly remembered its exact wording, googling it just now at a distance of 40-odd years:
Back East, Malcolm X carefully read and then signed the publication contract, and he withdrew from his wallet a piece of paper filled with his sprawling longhand. "This is this book's dedication," he said. I read: "This book I dedicate to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who found me here in America in the muck and mire of the filthiest civilization and society on this earth, and pulled me out, cleaned me up, and stood me on my feet, and made me the man that I am today (my emphasis).
It came to mind when I read this on the The Dish:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I'm in Mitt Romney's tax bracket...

not really, but in 2011 my wife and I paid the same 14% (roughly) in federal taxes on our income as he did. Which seems not right, since his household income is over 100 times ours.  In any case, the Romneys and the Galeota-Sprungs are among the two thirds of American households that, according to David Leonhardt, pay less than 15% of their income in federal taxes.

Our tax return is an interesting cross-section of the current federal tax system -- in one way quite typical (net result) and in another not so typical (how we got there). While my wife is a salaried worker, I am self employed, and that introduces somewhat self-canceling distortions. The two salient features are the self-employment tax, which doubles Social Security and Medicare taxes on income up to $106,800, and  the individual 401k, created in I think 2005 for solo self-employed taxpayers, which allows solo self-employed people over 50 to contribute up to $54,000 yearly to their retirement plans, deducting that contribution from their taxable income.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Michael Carvin misrepresented the mandate in oral argument

Arguing before the Supreme Court on March 27 that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act forces people to buy more health insurance coverage than they need -- an argument that Alito, Roberts and Scalia also voiced -- plaintiff's counsel Michael Carvin asserted,  "Congress prohibits anyone over 30 from buying any kind of catastrophic health insurance"  (p. 105).

I've noted that someone should have stressed to the justices that the ACA does allow those under 30 to purchase purely catastrophic coverage. The AP has weighed in with a story citing insurance experts who assert that the "bronze" plans offered in the insurance exchanges are skimpy enough to reasonably be dubbed catastrophic coverage. Randy Barnett, a prime mover of the case against the ACA, rebutted that claim today, as did Carvin himself in the AP story.

In a way it's a perverse argument. Why should defenders of the law have to argue that the ACA allows people to buy coverage crummy enough not to be construed as an undue infringement on personal liberty? Be that as it may, I want to return to one point noted in passing in my original post.

While the assertion that the ACA offers "catastrophic" coverage to those who want the bare minimum depends on your definition of 'catastrophic,'Carvin's assertion that "Congress prohibits anyone over 30 from buying any kind of catastrophic health insurance" is simply not true.

The point is technical but telling. Carvin was exaggerating the extent to which the law requires Americans to buy more coverage than they might conceivably individually need, or think they need. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Those books are for kids"? C.S. Lewis says no

Over at the Dish they've been having some fun with a bit of snark by Joel Stein, who exhorts adults to act their age while reading:
The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.
Now, this strikes me as a cocktail party provocation -- who really gets indignant about other people's choice of reading matter? -- albeit with the germ of a point that could be worked out more seriously (e.g., by humorless me...read on!). A host of readers have been delighted to take the bait, defending adult reading of YA and children's books with reasons many and good.  The best, of course, is sharing an experience -- often quite deeply -- with one's children. Also, it never hurts to connect with our inner child.  Then, too, teenagers are a great audience -- in a sense, the ur-audience -- for the internal angst that the novel evolved to express, so novels dramatizing teen angst often connect with readers of all ages. One Dish reader, a much-traveled businessman, adds that mega-popular series like Harry Potter click with huge numbers of people around the world and provide a basis for relationship.  Finally the best children's literature is high art indeed, evoking the passions, dilemmas, and quiddity of human experience as intensely as good literature for adults.

One forceful spokesman for children's literature was C.S. Lewis, a man who spent his life reading adult literature from the Iliad to Eliot (whom he professed not to understand at all), and who is probably better known for the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia he dashed off for children than for all his scholarship, religious polemic, and adult fiction.  Lewis's argument for children's literature was partly historical: the kind of fantasy and romance he loved was out of fashion in his time. He was suspicious of fashion in all things --and children, he suggested, were immune to it.  In "On Juvenile Tastes," noting that "specifically childish taste has been generally held to be that for the adventurous and marvellous," he argued there is nothing inherently childish in it:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The ACA offers catastrophic coverage: the AP notices!

For almost two weeks, I have been beating a drum, waving a flag, screaming from the bleachers that justices Alito, Roberts and Scalia seemed unaware of a fundamental feature of the Affordable Care Act (and were not disabused during oral argument on 3/27): the ACA has a catastrophic coverage option.  All three seemed convinced that the mandate requires individuals to buy more coverage than many people will ever need, such as substance abuse treatment, and that the young were being exploited as "golden geese" to subsidize the cost of covering older citizens.

My focus was on provisions in the ACA, Section 1302 (e), allowing those under 30 and others who could show financial hardship to buy purely catastrophic coverage. Now, the AP's Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar is out with a story* citing several experts who assert that the bronze plans to be offered in the insurance exchanges, available to all, are also essentially catastrophic coverage plans -- though that definition is contested. Those calling it catastrophic focus mainly on the percentage of costs covered:

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Cutting welfare in a recession: what doesn't go round doesn't come round

Today the Times reports on the effects of the 1996 welfare reform law in the Great Recession: the new rules enabled state governments to further cut their welfare rolls as unemployment and state budget shortfalls soared

In addition to the widespread misery caused by bumping resource-less people off the welfare rolls or reducing benefits, the welfare cuts enabled by the 1996 law must be one enabler of the overall reductions in government spending that distinguish this recession from previous ones. Paul Krugman has contrasted the  growth of state and local government spending in the wake of the Reagan recession by this point in Reagan's first term with the overall drop in such spending that has taken place during Obama's term, arguing that the difference more than accounts for the difference in the rate at which unemployment dropped in the two periods. (Unemployment in Reagan's first term dropped from a peak of 10.8% in December 1982 to 7.4% in October 1984. In Obama's term, unemployment peaked at 10.4% and has so far dropped to 8.2%. Krugman, using government purchases as a proxy for government spending, notes that purchases had risen 11.6% by this point in Reagan's term, while they've fallen 2.6% during Obama's.)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Obama's "math" for Ryan's budget: the assumptions are the point

Ezra Klein has done yeoman's work defending the factual basis of Obama's attack on the Ryan budget, thoroughly pwning David Brooks' denunciation of that attack. (When it comes to arguing on a factual basis, Klein vs. Brooks has got to be the most lopsided serial mismatch in media today).  Klein demonstrates that the assumptions Obama made in sketching out the effects of the cuts were reasonable. I just want to gild the lily by highlighting that Obama went the extra mile and spelled out those assumptions, and why he was making them.

Klein lays out the challenge of evaluating the effects of the Ryan budget this way:

Friday, April 06, 2012

Brainstorming for Santorum

High-profile "conservatives" think that Rick Santorum is losing because he hasn't been bold enough.  Strategist Richard Viguerie told ABC's Michael Falcone that supporters recently met with Santorum to "come up with a list of  'big bold ideas to grab control of the narrative and turn the campaign around.'”

Being of a bold nature, I want to help! After a visit to ricksantorum.com, I am bursting with ideas. My efflorescence (effluvia?) below.

Strengthen families
  • Institute an individual mandate requiring heterosexual marriage for all adults over 30.

  •  Provide tax breaks for regular church attendance. 

  • Present every American newborn with a Bible, a drill and a gun (alternative: make the presentation as soon as conception is confirmed).

  • Launch a real War on Pornography; authorize and train Citizens' Watch Groups to mine data captured by the NSA, and arm and empower them to arrest their offending neighbors.
Strengthen education 
  • Provide every home-schooling parent with a salary and benefits comparable to those procured for teachers by the local teacher's union.

  • Revamp school curricula to ensure that no learning material implies that the United States government, people or armed forces ever committed an unselfish, immoral or imprudent act.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Marty Lederman concurs: individual mandate could be trimmed not killed

On March 31, I put up a post (updated 4/2) arguing that a highly germane provision of the Affordable Care Act went unmentioned during the Supreme Court grilling of Verrilli: the option for adults under 30 and others showing financial hardship to buy catastrophic coverage only, rather than a bronze, silver or gold plan on the exchanges. That was germane because Alito, Roberts and Scalia all asserted that not everyone in the market needs the range of services that policies offered in the insurance exchanges are required to cover -- implying that the young and healthy were being treated as "golden geese," as plaintiff's attorney Paul Clement later claimed, being tapped to finance coverage for the older and sicker.

Given the concern that the government's intrusion be as limited as possible, I wondered "whether the catastrophic care option for those under 30  does not suggest a way out: it could be extended. Could the judges rule that the mandate can extend to catastrophic care only -- in effect, legislating from the bench?  I am pleased to note that Marty Lederman at Balkinization, former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration's OLC, has raised the same possibility.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The GOP conjures up a candidate

Rebutting the notion that Mitt Romney is winning the GOP nomination because his rivals failed to put together professional campaign organizations, Conor Friedersdorf argues that Romney faced no viable competition, but rather a crew with "glaring substantive flaws."  Well, sure. But why did Romney face no viable competition?  The current state of the GOP allowed no "better" candidate to emerge.

If Mitt Romney didn't exist -- and in his current incarnation, he didn't, until circa 2005 -- GOP voters would have had to invent him.  In fact, they did invent him. Forget the Etch-A-Sketch: he is the Ouija board of the GOP base.  Whatever position they collectively demand, he adopts.

If Republican voters are reluctant to back Romney , it's because he caters simultaneously to contradictory desires.  Collectively, the party wants to seem moderate enough to win without compromising far-right fantasy positions.  Romney can perhaps win because people don't see him as an extremist: he had a moderate record as governor, preceded by a long successful career in a field that demands pragmatism and a respect for data, which he credibly claims to possess.  And yet he is sworn to advance every jot and tittle of an extremist agenda: deficit reduction without tax increases or defense cuts, foreign policy without negotiation, dismantling of Obamneycare, broader defenestration of the federal government , defunding of Planned Parenthood, reversal of Rove v. Wade, ruthless hounding of undocumented aliens out the door.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Obama: Reagan "could not get through a Republican primary today"

Well, I'm late to the party today, and there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said about Obama's crystal clear contrast between his budget priorities and the Ryan Republicans' today in his speech at the Associated Press lunch. See Greg Sargent on core messages (especially on defending government activism as essential to sustainable growth), Ezra Klein on making the Ryan cuts concrete, Jamelle Bouie on highlighting the current GOP's extremism.

I will content myself with the encore: a remarkable little pocket brief that Obama delivered in response to the first question. The subject was Republican extremism, and the false equivalence that locates the reasonable center at the midpoint between two parties. Claiming the center, Obama reeled off a syllogism:  a) deficit reduction entails a common sense mix of revenue hikes and spending cuts; b) all the Republican presidential candidates ruled out any revenue hikes; c) Ronald Reagan accepted the budgeting realities that the current GOP denies; d) Democrats were willing to accept tough entitlements cuts, but Republicans wouldn't budge on revenue; therefore e) the press indulges in false equivalence when it portrays both sides as equally unable to compromise.  Here's the disquisition:

Monday, April 02, 2012

If IQ declines in rich countries, where does that leave our better angels?

It seems that the so-called "Flynn Effect" -- the steady rise of average IQ in developed nations -- may have very recently gone into reverse in some countries. So suggest studies in England, Denmark and Norway, reports Philip Hunter in Prospect (flagged by Sullivan). If the trend is real, and lasting, and widespread, it could spell serious trouble for continued decline in violence tracked by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.


In Better Angels, Flynn attributes the "rights revolutions" of recent decades, in which oppression of one group after another has come under fire or become taboo, to the spread of capacity for abstract reasoning. Not only recognition of common humanity but a sense of proportionality in inflicting punishment and deploying violence require the "Rational-Legal model' of moral judgment, which in turn "requires the nonintuitive tools of symbolic mathematics, such as fractions, percentages, and exponentiation...and depends on the cognition-enhancing skills of literacy and numeracy" (Kindle location 14338).  What if those skills no longer continue to grow, and indeed start on average to decline, in those countries that have laid  the rules of the road for the international community?

Attention Alito, Roberts, Scalia: the ACA has a catastrophic coverage option

Excuse the (edited) repost: I think the info below is important (see also 4/5 update - Marty Lederman raises the possibility of a more limited mandate; 4/10 update - the AP weighs in; 4/12 update, the mandate as self-limiting principle; and 4/20 update - response to Jon Cohn). If I'm missing something, please let me know:
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Attention, Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia: your objection to the extent of the individual mandate in the ACA may be based on at a partial misunderstanding. Or at least, on a failure by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and the four justices supportive of the ACA to highlight an important provision of the law. That is:  the Affordable Care Act includes a catastrophic coverage option for people under thirty and others who meet certain financial requirements.

In questioning the right of the Federal government to require individuals to buy insurance, the justices glided past the argument that the requirement was justified because the cost of care for the uninsured drives up the cost of health care for everyone -- that we are all in the health care market -- by asserting that not everyone in the market needs the range of services that policies offered in the insurance exchanges are required to cover. This objection was hammered repeatedly, in a variety of ways, by Roberts, Alito and Scalia, and by Michael Carvin arguing for the plaintiffs.  Here's the first such assertion in the transcript:
JUSTICE ALITO: But isn't that really a small part of what the mandate is doing? You can correct me if these figures are wrong, but it appears to me that the CBO has estimated that the average premium for a single insurance policy in the non-group market would be roughly $5,800 in -- in 2016.

Respondents -- the economists who have supported the Respondents estimate that a young, healthy individual targeted by the mandate on average consumes about $854 in health services each year. So the mandate is forcing these people to provide a huge subsidy to the insurance companies for other purposes that the Act wishes to serve, but isn't -- if those figures are right, isn't it the case that what this mandate is really doing is not requiring the people who are subject to it to pay for the services that they are going to consume? It is requiring them to subsidize services that will be received by somebody else.
And Roberts, broadening the objection:
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, but it's critical how you define the market. If I understand the law, the policies that you're requiring people to purchase involve -- must contain provision for maternity and newborn care, pediatric services, and substance use treatment. It seems to me that you cannot say that everybody is going to need substance use treatment -substance use treatment or pediatric services, and yet that is part of what you require them to purchase (pp 31-32).
And Scalia, following up a couple of minutes later:

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The joy of catcalling

Andrew Sullivan's Dish has run a series on 'the terror of catcalling', in which women recount the intimidation, shame, inhibition, anger etc. they suffered when subject to the catcalls and other unwanted expressions of sexual interest of men in public places.

Not to in any way diminish the problem or gainsay the pain recounted in these narratives, but coincidentally, I had just been reading about a place in which such encounters are often experienced completely differently: France.