Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Fuel Spill: The Republicans Are About to Admit That Obamacare Helps Consumers. (Bet On It.)

In another setback for President Obama’s health care initiative, the administration has delayed until 2015 a significant consumer protection in the law that limits how much people may have to spend on their own health care.

The limit on out-of-pocket costs, including deductibles and co-payments, was not supposed to exceed $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family. But under a little-noticed ruling, federal officials have granted a one-year grace period to some insurers, allowing them to set higher limits, or no limit at all on some costs, in 2014. …

The [change] is likely to fuel continuing Republican efforts this fall to discredit the president’s health care law.

Under the policy, many group health plans will be able to maintain separate out-of-pocket limits for benefits in 2014. As a result, a consumer may be required to pay $6,350 for doctors’ services and hospital care, and an additional $6,350 for prescription drugs under a plan administered by a pharmacy benefit manager.

Some consumers may have to pay even more, as some group health plans will not be required to impose any limit on a patient’s out-of-pocket costs for drugs next year. If a drug plan does not currently have a limit on out-of-pocket costs, it will not have to impose one for 2014, federal officials said Monday.

A Limit on Consumer Costs Is Delayed in Health Care Law, Robert Pear, New York Times, today

Damn that Obama administration for forcing people whose insurance policies now have no limit on patients’ out-of-pocket costs to force them to wait another year for that consumer protection to kick in!  This is proof positive that we should repeal the statute so that that consumer protection will never kick in!

Freedom! Liberty!

Yep.  Definitely fuel for continuing Republican efforts this fall to discredit the president’s health care law. Can’t wait for the fuel spill.

The legal profession has a term for this in its Rules of Evidence: It’s called a statement against interest. The law of physics has a term for it, too: boomerang.


UPDATE: Ezra Klein posted a good Wonkblog post yesterday explaining what happened, and why. 8/14

Offer Woodward a Buyout, Mr. Graham. And This Time Force Him to Take It. [UPDATED]

In followup to this post of mine from earlier today, I want to point out Ezra Klein’s post from last night titled “On the sequester, the American people ‘moved the goalposts’.” It begins:

I don’t agree with my colleague Bob Woodward, who says the Obama administration is “moving the goalposts” when they insist on a sequester replacement that includes revenues. I remember talking to both members of the Obama administration and the Republican leadership in 2011, and everyone was perfectly clear that Democrats were going to pursue tax increases in any sequester replacement, and Republicans were going to oppose tax increases in any sequester replacement. What no one knew was who would win.
“Moving the goal posts” isn’t a concept that actually makes any sense in the context of replacing the sequester. The whole point of the policy was to buy time until someone, somehow, moved the goalposts such that the sequester could be replaced.

He then notes:

The sequester was a punt. The point was to give both sides a face-saving way to raise the debt ceiling even though the tax issue was stopping them from agreeing to a deficit deal. The hope was that sometime between the day the sequester was signed into law (Aug. 2, 2011) and the day it was set to go into effect (Jan. 1, 2013), something would…change.

There were two candidates to drive that change. The first and least likely was the supercommittee. If they came to a deal that both sides accepted, they could replace the sequester. They failed.

The second was the 2012 election. If Republicans won, then that would pretty much settle it: No tax increases. If President Obama won, then that, too, would pretty much settle it: The American people would’ve voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

The American people voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

And then there’s the coup de grâce:

In fact, they went even further than that. They also voted for a Senate that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes. And then they voted for a House that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes, though due to the quirks of congressional districts, they didn’t get one.

He ends his post by saying:

Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.

So Klein first makes clear, from his own direct, first-hand knowledge, that Woodward’s central representation of fact is false. He then deconstructs the very meaning of Woodward’s essential opinion claim by pointing out that it’s nutty.  

The Washington Post for the last several years has been engaged in numerous rounds of cost-cutting efforts, mainly through layoffs and buyouts.  Yet it continues to pay this has-been an almost-certainly-outsized salary, because 40 years ago he played a key role in breaking open this country’s worst (by far) political scandal, and thus cemented the Post’s status as a rival to the New York Times.  

But this episode highlights that that has become counterproductive.  


UPDATE: Oh, dear. Turns out that Woodward took a buyout from the Post all the way back in 2008.  Who knew?  After all,  the preface to that now-infamous reporting–er, opinion-piece–published this weekend says he’s an associate editor.  And he gets paid only about $2 per word!  Maybe when his current contract runs out, the Post will start requiring him to pay the newspaper $2 per word to allow him to publish his outstanding reporting there.  Or at least will start requiring him to fact-check what he publishes there. 

Given that this info was easily available on the web before I posted this post yesterday, the Post might consider hiring me to write for them.  Looks like I qualify.

National Journal Editorial Director* Ron Fournier Missed Eighth-Grade Civics Class the Day They Discussed the Separation-of-Powers Thing. He Should Now Get a Tutor.

It’s hard to know who will end up taking the biggest political hit if the latest Washington-induced crisis moves from theoretical to real — but the answer may well lie in which side can get the public to buy into its finger-pointing at the other side.
That’s why the excuses matter: Polls show Obama has the upper hand now over unpopular lawmakers, but much can change if sequestration upends the country’s economic recovery and Americans lose their jobs and access to popular government services.

Sequestration: Excuses, excuses, excuses, Darren Samuelsohn and Scott Wong, Politico, yesterday

I agree.  If the sequester upends the country’s economic recovery and Americans lose their jobs and access to popular government services because of its deep cuts in federal spending, the public  may well rage against Obama for refusing to accede to the Republicans’ demand that federal spending be cut much more dramatically (except for the Defense Department’s spending, which would not be cut at all)–therefore costing at least as many Americans their jobs and further denying access to those popular government services and to additional ones.  They may well be livid with Obama that he wanted to lessen the number of job losses and the loss of access to popular government services by claiming more tax revenues from wealthy individuals and corporations.  

Especially since about three-fourths of the public supports Obama’s proposed route.  The public may be marching in the streets, demanding impeachment.   And demanding further deep spending cuts in order to cut more jobs and popular services, and lower taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. At least if they’re really, really angry about the job losses, the damage to the economy, and the loss of popular government services.

It isn’t a certainty that they will, though, even if they’re really, really angry about the job losses, the damage to the economy, and the loss of popular government services. Which is why the Politico piece says only that it’s hard to tell whether or not they will.  Such things just can’t be predicted with reasonable accuracy.

One thing John Boehner is right about: The public does understand–his word, not mine–that tax increases are off the table, because the Republicans agreed to $600 billion in tax increases on people with very high incomes as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal seven weeks ago.  

They also understand exactly why further tax revenue from the very wealthy is off the table. And they know that it’s not actually because the Republicans agreed to $600 billion in tax increases on people with very high incomes as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal seven weeks ago.  

The Politico piece, which I’m betting was not the idea of the two reporters but was instead an assignment handed to them, along with an opening script, by top management there–it is not a reporting piece at all–is an interesting variation on the highly-in-vogue-this-season pseudo-journalism pox-on-both-their-houses sequestration/fiscal-cliff/debt-ceiling/shut-down-the-government routine.  It passes for journalism.  But it is not journalism.  It is propaganda.  

The Politico piece subtlely varies the usual technique. Instead of saying, as most of the genre’s pieces do, that these crises really are the fault of both sides–equally, of course–this article says the public probably can’t distinguish between suddenly and dramatically cutting federal spending, causing substantial job losses and gutting popular government services, and cutting federal spending less and more slowly and helping to reduce the budget deficit by raising more tax revenue from the wealthy individuals and corporations.  

But most members of this Lewis-Carroll-as-journalists crowd do the straight from of it.  In fact, a few of them seem more like the Mad Hatter than like the Mad Hatter’s creator.  Ron Fournier appears to be among them.

For those of you who don’t know, and there probably are few of you who don’t, Ron Fournier is a Republican-leaning, somewhat controversial Washington political journalist who a few years ago was himself major news in journalism circles when he was appointed the Associated Press’s acting Washington bureau chief.  (Until I read his Wikipedia page a few minutes ago, I wasn’t aware that it was intended as just a temporary appointment.)  The Wikipedia paragraph about this explains the controversy:

In May 2008, Fournier was named the acting Washington bureau chief, replacing his “mentor” Sandy Johnson. Since taking over the position, Fournier has led a dramatic shift in the AP’s policy, moving it away from the neutral and objective tone it had become known for and toward a more opinionated style that would make judgments when conflicting opinions were presented in a story.

The judgments Fournier favored were ones that the Republican Party favored as well, if I remember right.  It wasn’t a hit with Fournier’s AP colleagues, nor apparently with many of the AP’s news media clients.  So he left the AP to become editor at the venerable National Journal, which, for those of you who don’t know, and there probably are a few of you who don’t, is a (mainly) print journal that at least in recent years quietly leans Republican but that clothes itself as neutral.  

Sort of like Politico.  Except that, unlike Politico, no one outside Washington reads it and no one outside Washington cares about it.  Which is understandable, since no one outside Washington has ever heard of it. (Except me, but I do qualify as someone who doesn’t read it and someone who doesn’t care about it.)

Anyway, Greg Sargent, who is inside Washington and who does read the National Journal, writes this morning:

To summarize, Fournier and Pfeiffer argued over who is to blame for the sequester. Pfeiffer criticized David Brooks’ “pox on both houses” column this morning and noted that only one side (the GOP) is not willing to compromise to avoid the sequester. Fournier, who also tweeted a link to Brooks’ column, replied with several tweets arguing that it’s on the President to secure compromise from the opposition, such as this one: “only one side is president. Both sides should be ashamed.”

This echoes Fournier’s recent column arguing that while Republicans have adopted a fundamentally uncompromising position (which to Fournier’s credit he’s been willing to acknowledge), “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure.” Brooks’s column, meanwhile, argues that both sides are to blame, because Obama doesn’t have a plan to avert the sequester (which is false). So, some questions for the “blame it on both sides” crowd:

1) Let’s grant Fournier’s premise that a president should do all he can to secure cooperation from the other side. What more, if anything, could Obama actually do to win cooperation from today’s Republican Party on averting the sequester, short of giving in to the GOP demand that we replace it only with spending cuts? Republicans say no compromise to avert the sequester is acceptable. That’s not an exaggeration: It’s the party’s explicit, publicly stated position. What more specifically could Obama do to change this? If the answer is “nothing,” then why are both sides equally to blame?

Okay, look.  The president can be appropriately analogized to the CEO of the executive branch of the federal government.  It’s not a perfect analogy; obviously, there are laws that limit the president’s control over the executive branch–the Federalist Society’s silly Reagan-era “unitary executive” theory of law (don’t ask) to the contrary, notwithstanding.  But it’s a useful analogy nonetheless.  

But unless you recognize that Congress is not the president’s subordinate, whose membership he can hire and fire, and that federal fiscal policy is not established by fiat of top management, or unless you realize this but aren’t astute enough to understand that these are, to use a favorite word of lawyers, “material” differences between corporate CEOs and the president of the United States, you do know that it is deeply stupid to say that “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure,” and not realize that some enterprises actually don’t have a chief executive and that the federal government is among those enterprises that do not.

I guess this is confusing, because, after all, the president is the chief of the executive branch of the federal government.  You have to know that this particular enterprise has three separate branches that, as per the Constitution, operate independent of one another, in order to understand the difference between being the chief of the executive branch and being the chief executive.  And Fournier apparently does not.

Greg Sargent, Paul Krugman, The New Yorker’s Jonathan Chait, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, and a few other political writers have been sounding sirens of alarm and utter dismay at this increasingly dangerous and perverted juggernaut by so many self-styled neutral mainstream political journalists, including two days ago a Washington Post editorial writer, to engage in a campaign of deceit and propaganda in reporting on these sequential Republican-orchestrated federal fiscal crises.  

In my opinion, the very best of the deconstruction-of-the-pretzel-positions pieces–and one of the most piercing and quietly eloquent political opinion pieces I’ve ever read–is this one, from Wednesday, by Chait, which Yglesias linked to on Wednesday and which Sargent links to today. Yglesias’s excellent posts are here and here.

I think we’re about to reach an epiphany point, at which enough important journalists become genuinely scared of what is by now creepily similar to a government-controlled mainstream press in totalitarian countries that this will cease.  No, not by the stupid Ron Fournier or by the silly, robotic David Brooks.  But maybe at least by the Washington Post’s editorial writers and by reporters who certainly need their current jobs but who also are young enough to need reputations as credible and intelligent journalists, going forward.

And once that happens, maybe mainstream journalism will have a similar epiphany about the austerity juggernaut. Or, as Ezra Klein points out, mainstream journalism’s really weird role in it.

As for Fournier, according to Wikipedia, he’s won several prestigious journalism awards. But never one for commentary. Maybe this year.

*Originally, this post said Fournier was the National Journal’s title was editor.

POSTSCRIPT: I hadn’t seen this post of Paul Krugman’s from yesterday until just now. Talk about cutting to–cutting into, really–the heart of something slimy yet seemingly ever-evading analysis and puncture!

Enough. Enough. Time now to end it. Psychiatrists are standing by to offer withdrawal counseling.

O Brotherhood, Where Art Thou? (Ezra Klein versus … Me (and Others))

Oh, dear.  I like Ezra Klein. A lot.  So I’ll leave out the sarcasm–a necessity anyway, since I’ve already exhausted this week’s supply.

But I do want to point out, because he’s so influential now, that Klein’s piece yesterday siding with those who thought Obama’s speech Monday should not have set forth liberal policy positions in so in-your-face a manner, and should not have called the Republicans on their conservative ones, seems, best as I can tell, to conflate two distinct points.  More important, it fails to recognize that the events of the last week concerning the debt-ceiling issue prove one of those points wrong.

Klein argues, weirdly, in my opinion, that the presidential bully pulpit is not very effective, because most people don’t watch presidential speeches.  And it’s certainly true that, in the current era, most people don’t watch presidential speeches.  They may see short clips from it on the TV news, or see headlines about it in a newspaper or online, but even if they see the speech itself, it won’t change many people’s minds; almost everyone already has made up their mind about the subjects addressed in the speech.  And, by making an ideological speech, Obama made it less likely that the congressional Republicans will cooperate with him at all–a presumption disproved by this morning’s headlines confirming what already had been reported yesterday as likely.

O, brotherhood, where art thou?  Thou art back in the first nearly-four years of Obama’s first term, in which he failed even to publicly correct patent disinformation by the Republicans, such as about what the debt ceiling is and what “raising it means–and doesn’t mean.

Klein’s right that the speech itself probably didn’t change any minds.  He’s wrong, though, that it was intended to do that.  It was an inaugural speech, not, say, a highly publicized press conference at which he finally educates the public about such things as the debt ceiling statute and thus demonstrates to the Republicans that the success of that particular bit of their disinformation campaign is at an end.  

I can’t understand why so many political pundits–and why Obama himself, for so long–have found it so hard to grasp the difference between political rhetoric and clear statements of actual fact and refutations of misrepresentations of fact.  

And, if it’s true that the presidential (and presidential-candidate) bully pulpit has little effect in educating and persuading, then why have presidential campaigns, at all?  In fact, this last one was quite effective in deconstructing critical disinformation by Romney, Ryan, and the “conservative movement,” wasn’t it?

Klein’s piece was titled, “Reminder: Big presidential speeches (mostly) don’t matter.”  True, when the speech is just rhetoric rather than an invocation of actual fact.  Or when the speech is not intended to throw down an ideological gauntlet, as this one was. And did.

A Kiss From a Used-Car Salesman—and why it’s important to tie Romney’s “47%” comment directly to his Orwellian lies

As for the second of those three questions—Is he a cold-hearted conservative or a moderate Republican from Massachusetts?—I think there’s a third possibility.  I think he’s George Orwell.

Or, rather, that he’s channeling George Orwell.  Not Orwell, the person.  Orwell, the writer.

Orwell, of course, is most famous for his book 1984, in which politicians and government officials say exactly the opposite of what they mean.  Thus, the term “Orwellian,” which is not limited to politicians’ statements, but which refers to the use of common language terms that have a fixed meaning, and using them to suggest exactly the opposite of what those terms actually mean—and exactly the opposite of what the speaker does mean.

Up means down, left means right, black means white.  You get the picture.  Some people will think that when you say “up,” you mean “up.”  Others will understand that when you say “up,” you mean “down.”  It’s sophistry, con artistry. 

It’s also a key tactic that dictators use to gain or keep power.  Hitler, of course, used it routinely.  But so did Mao Tse-tung.  In fact, another word for “Orwellian” was, during the Mao era, “Mao Speak.”  You just change the definition of common words to mean exactly the opposite of what the words have meant.  That way, you can continue to claim that you’re doing something in particular, or will do something in particular, when you’re actually doing or planning to do the opposite.

In democracies, when politicians do that, it has another synonym: lie.  Or at least that’s been so until now.  On Wednesday night, Romney changed the meaning of many words and phrases so that they mean the opposite of what they have meant.  Not the least are the words “win” and “debate,” at least as the former normally is applied to the latter, although it was largely the news media that redefined “win,” and of course Jim Lehrer helped with the redefinition of “debate.”

But another word that underwent a quick transition Wednesday night from its normal meaning to the opposite of it is “plan.”  As in, he has a plan to cover preexisting medical conditions.  The word “plan” normally means, y’know, a recommendation or intention to change something from its current status.  The phrase “a plan to cover preexisting medical conditions” normally means a requirement that insurance companies provide medical insurance to people who have preexisting medical conditions such as, say, multiple sclerosis or breast cancer, beyond what federal law already requires.  That is, beyond the status quo. 
Which is that people who have, say, multiple sclerosis or a malignant breast tumor and have had no healthcare insurance within the previous three months can get treated at the emergency room, and then maybe file for bankruptcy if the hospital actually does provide, um, treatment for these medical problems.  Then again, Romney had redefined the word “treatment” even before the Wednesday debate, so I guess we now have to understand the phrase “medical treatment” to mean something like, “But you have no insurance and you need the sort of medical procedure that isn’t done in emergency rooms.”  Romney already had redefined the word “plan” to mean promised goals rather than the specific, credible means of achieving them. 

But that redefinition had applied only to his economic plan—a plan that he said on Wednesday night might not work, and which—although it escaped the punditry—he seemed to be admitting that he (the successful businessman!) had devised without any actual economic basis for thinking that the revenue/tax-deduction ends could meet as designed.  But this second redefinition of the word “plan” was something else entirely, because by saying that he has a plan to provide healthcare insurance to people who currently are denied it because of a preexisting medical condition, he was telling them that he plans to something specific that he plans not to do.  And it concerns some truly fundamental things, in some cases life or death, in others financial security or instead financial devastation. 

What kind of person stands on a stage speaking to 67 million people, and just plain lies about something of that sort?  Dare I say it—the kind of person who speaks derisively about 47 percent of Americans, none of whom are Bain investors, have overseas bank accounts, hire PriceWaterhouseCoopers to tally their tax returns, and have their IRA accounts in the Cayman Islands.  Nor contribute to Republican PACs or attend Romney fundraisers in Boca Raton.  Or anywhere else.

Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column today, uses humor to run through many, but by no means all (she’s only allowed a limited number of words per column, after all), of Romney’s bald debate-“winning” lies.  And she includes the preexisting-medical-conditions one.  But I think it’s Paul Krugman who, in his Times column on Friday, titled “Romney’s Sick Joke,” best highlights that this particular lie is particularly brazen and particularly pernicious.  And Ezra Klein points out that Romney’s mendacity about his plan for healthcare coverage—and in this context it is indeed a plan, as that word is defined the old-fashioned way—runs even deeper. 

It’s been said, accurately, many, many times now that this election will determine the basic nature of American government.  But until now, that’s meant budgetary, taxing and regulatory policy.  It now means something even more fundamental, in addition: Whether or not we allow a redefinition of the word “democracy.”  Romney asks us to believe in America.  It turns out that he means an America of the sort that George Orwell feared.

Or at least one run by a used car salesman.  Read the fine print on that contract.  And on that separate warranty you’ll be charged for. 

A kiss is not a kiss when it’s described as one by someone with a forked tongue.  

Base broadening, rate lowering…Robert asks?

Lifted from Robert’s site:

Ezra Klein defends an increased capital gains tax as necessary for distributionally neutral base broadening rate lowering tax reform..  I support a higher capital gains tax rate (did not have space for that in my comment).
My comment:

But why do you want base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform  ?  The inside the beltway wonk consensus is that this must be good.  The claim is that it is more efficient.  Surely true if efficiency is measured as dollars raised per page of tax code or dollar of compliance cost.  But the argument is that the important advantage is that such reform will reduce distortions due to taxes.  Here the implicit arguments are both that high rates cause distortions and that deductions and credits and such allow socially costly tax avoidance. I consider them in turn:

1) High rates are bad. There is almost no evidence for this claim. It is an article of faith for Republicans and Democrats have decided that they can get more important changes in exchange for lower rates.  But as far as I know (and I’ve published in the Journal of Public Economics) the claim is not supported by actual evidence.

2) Tax expenditures are worse than just giving the money to corporations and rich individuals because they distort decisions.  Here I think opposition to tax expenditures in general is like opposition to government’spending in general.  No one likes either in the abstract. 

You wouldn’t really argue that way too many Americans had health insurance because employer provided health insurance was not taxed as income.  So that is one major bit of base broadening you would have opposed at least pre ACA (except on a ‘the worse it is the better it is’ Leninist principle). 

How about the EITC.  You know that is one tax expenditure that Republicans want to cut.  It is also one of the very best policies there is (one of the key ways US policy is vastly better than European policy along with … uh give me a minute).  How about the charitable gift deduction ? It can be abused but seems basically OK to me.
I think a lot of the broad support for base broadening is based on hatred of the mortgage interest deduction.  It means huge houses far from work and driving cars and global warming.  It diverts saving from productive capital labor productivity and wage increasing capital to houses which just sit there.  Suburban and Exurban because that’s where the new building is.  Also completely totally politically untouchable and you know it.  You might as well base your hopes on cutting rates and increasing the tax on gasoline by a dollar a gallon plus imposing a $100 dollar a ton carbon tax.  Fine policy, but not a policy proposal of any relevance to the US debate.
The most extreme case is someone (not you a friend of yours) who said we have to radically simplify the corporate tax code so corporations spend money on engineers not lawyers and accountants.  That is to increase corporate R and D and eliminate the R and D tax credit.
3) This is not an argument for base broadening and not at all relevant to this blog, but I think every aging Washington wonk’s favorite year is 1986.  Genuinely bipartisan, wonk driven reform.  It was great.  But what good did it do ?

(Dan here…Light editing for readability)