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Two Important Notes For Anyone Renewing Obamacare Coverage

| Sat Nov. 15, 2014 12:17 PM EST

Today is the first day of the 2015 signup period for Obamacare. If you currently have coverage, you need to decide whether to keep the plan you have or shop around for a different one. Here are a couple of key things to keep in mind—whether you're buying coverage for yourself or know friends who are:

  • As the New York Times points out today, it's possible that the net price of your current coverage could go up substantially this year. Here's why: the size of the federal subsidy depends on the price of your plan relative to other plans. If your plan was the cheapest on offer last year, it qualified for a maximum subsidy. But if other, cheaper plans are offered this year, and your plan is now, say, only the fourth cheapest, you'll get a smaller subsidy. So even if your actual plan premium stays the same, your net cost could go up a lot.

    This is, naturally, becoming a partisan attack point, but don't ignore it just because the usual suspects are making hay with it. It's a real issue that anyone buying insurance on a state or federal exchange should be aware of.

    Bottom line: shop around. Don't just hit the renew button without checking things out.
  • Andrew Sprung has been writing tirelessly about something called Cost Sharing Reduction. It's not well known, but it could be important to you. Today, Sprung tells us that the new version of healthcare.gov has a pretty nice shoparound feature that allows you to enter some basic information and then provides a comparison of all plans in your area. I tried it myself, and sure enough, the "window shopping" feature works nicely and is easily accessible from the home page.

    However, it doesn't do a good job of steering you toward silver-level plans, which are the only ones eligible for Cost Sharing Reduction. For example, I shopped for a plan for a low-income family of three in Missouri, and the cost of the cheapest bronze plan was $0. The cost of the cheapest silver plan was $90 per month. That's an extra $1,000 per year, and a lot of low-income families will naturally gravitate toward the cheaper plan, especially since it's the first one they see.

    But the bronze plan has both a deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $12,600. The silver plan with CSR has a deductible of $2,000 and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,700. Unless you're literally rolling the dice that you're never going to see a doctor this year, you're almost certain to be better off with the silver plan, even though the up-front monthly premium is a little higher.

    Bottom line: shop around. The plan that looks cheapest often isn't, and for low-income buyers a silver plan is often your best bet. For more, here's the CSR page at healthcare.gov. And for even more, Sprung has details about shopping at the new site here and here.

I guess the bottom line is obvious by now: shop around. Even if you can navigate the website yourself, be careful. Not everything is obvious at first glance. And if you're not comfortable doing it by yourself, don't. Get help from an expert in your state. You have three months to sign up, so there's no rush.

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I Found Another Video of Super Mario Hurting People and It's Even Better Than the Last One

| Sat Nov. 15, 2014 10:31 AM EST

I have been to the Oscars, to Cannes, to Sundance, and speaking for myself only, at this particular juncture in time—I retain the right to change my mind in the future; maybe I'm going through some stuff right now; maybe I'll regret this—these Super Bad Mario videos are the most entertaining things I've ever seen in my entire life.

The bit with the television presenter on the boat in this one is art.

Have a nice weekend.

Two Charts That Show How the US Is Shortchanging the World

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 5:15 PM EST
pledges
Tim McDonnell

This morning, the New York Times reported that President Obama is poised to announce a pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-administered account to help poor countries deal with climate change. That's the biggest single pledge of any country so far (see chart above); it doubles the total size of the fund and is a major step toward the UN's target of raising $15 billion before next month's climate talks in Lima, Peru. Other notable carbon emitters, such as the UK, are expected to announce contributions by the end of next week.

But viewed in a different context, the US contribution looks much less impressive. The idea behind the fund is to reconcile one of the cruel ironies of climate change: Many of the nations that will be hit hardest by global warming—countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, for example—have done very little to cause the problem. Bangladesh was recently ranked as the country that is most vulnerable to climate change, but its per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are 44 times smaller than the US's per-capita emissions, according to the World Bank. So the fund is meant to bridge the gap between the rich countries whose carbon pollution causing climate change and the poor countries that are suffering from it.

As the chart below shows, the US's contribution to the Green Climate Fund looks a lot smaller when it's adjusted to take into account America's extremely high emissions:

relative
Tim McDonnell

Cumulatively since 1980—the earliest year for which consistent data from the Energy Information Administration is available—the US has emitted more carbon than any other country, including China. (In 2008, China overtook the US as the leading annual carbon polluter). So it's probably fair to say that the US is more to blame for global warming than any other single country. And yet Obama's pledge to the Green Climate Fund only translates to about $17,100 per million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from 1980 to 2012—placing it ninth among the 13 countries that have announced pledges. That's a bit like crashing a friend's car and only offering to pay to fix the steering wheel. By contrast, Sweden's pledge equates to $292,000 per million tons of CO2 emissions—17 times greater than the US pledge.

It's great and necessary that Obama is willing to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. But I think it's fair to say the US is getting away pretty cheap.

Thanks to Victoria's Secret, We Now Know Models Get Sad With Body Envy Too

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 3:45 PM EST

Following the backlash to their "The Perfect Body" campaign, Victoria's Secret appears to be attempting a bit of damage control with a new video that actually shows it's still as tone-deaf to body image concerns as ever.

The video, posted on Instagram, features model Sara Sampaio explaining that even beautiful models know what it's like to long for the bone structure of others—in this case, Candice.

But Sampaio knows that "not in a million" years could she have the body of Candice. The post cuts out to her looking dejected, while forming the shape of Candice's magical derriere. It's a sad day when we have to remind Sampaio she is in fact stunning, but at least we now have the comfort of knowing all ladies can relate to body hating.

 

Don’t stress about what someone else has—love what u got! @sarasampaio #VSFashionShow #KnowYourBody #ModelTalk

A video posted by Victoria's Secret (@victoriassecret) on

 

(h/t Jezebel)

Will This New GMO Potato Take Off? McDonald's Has Spoken

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 3:28 PM EST
Which spud's for you? The Innate, left, is engineered not to turn brown soon after cutting.

Would you be excited to pluck a bag of precut, gleaming-white potato slices from supermarket produce bin—fresh not frozen, and ready to throw in the pan or the FryDaddy?

Your answer may decide the fate of the "Innate" potato, which has been genetically engineered to resist browning and to contain less of the amino acid that turns into acrylamide—a probably human carcinogen—when potatoes are fried at high temperatures. Developed by the agribusiness giant J.R. Simplot, a major player in the $3.7 billion American potato market, the product won approval last week from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The reason you can currently only buy frozen precut potatoes is that they turn brown quickly. The Innate solves this, uh, problem.

To understand why the success of the new potato will hinge on your desire for convenience, a little background is in order: Simplot is one of the three massive companies (alongside ConAgra and McCain Foods) that buy potatoes from farmers, process them into French fries—as well as tater tots, spiral fries, and wedges—freeze them, and distribute them to companies ranging from fast-food giants to supermarket chains.

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 November 2014

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 2:58 PM EST

As you may recall, last week I regaled you with the news that cats (allegedly) love circles. Put a circular object on the floor, and they'll flock to it. But is this true? On Saturday, my sister visited and we performed our experiment: she laid down a scarf on the floor in a circular shape and we waited. I insisted that we do nothing to influence the cats, since that would ruin all the lovely Science™, but we didn't have to wait long. Hilbert came over first, and then Hopper followed. For the next 15 minutes they went nuts for the circle. By the time I took the picture on the right, the scarf was no longer all that circular, but it didn't matter. They loved it.

So there you have it. Cats do love circles. The reason, however, remains a mystery, so let's move on to this week's official catblogging. I've already mentioned that I have a hard time keeping up with our little furballs unless they're snoozing, so this week you get a picture of them snoozing (Hopper on the left, Hilbert on the right). I sent this to the shelter where we got them, and they thought it was hilarious. Our guys are not the kind of cats who curl up when they sleep. They stretch out as far as they can to air out their tummies, even if that means they're often hanging over the edge of a chair. But the couch is better. Even they can only fill up half a couch.

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Study: White People Think Black People Are Magical Unicorns

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 2:47 PM EST

A new study featured in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concludes white people may possess a "superhuman bias" against black people, and are therefore likely to attribute preternatural qualities to black people.

Jesse Singal explains at the Science of Us:

In a series of five studies, some involving so-called implicit association tests in which words are flashed on a screen quickly enough to "prime" a subject with their meaning but not for them to consciously understand what they have seen, the researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with superhuman words like ghost, paranormal, and spirit.

This image of a magical black person, someone holding extraordinary mental and physical powers, has long persisted through American culture, whether it be through cringe-worthy movie roles or literature.

And the damage of such a potential bias is significant. While it's easy to understand why most clichés are both dangerous and destructive, the study suggests white people's tendency to cast a black person as a magical being—a stereotype that on its face some might claim is positive—is actually just as detrimental as say the image of the angry black woman, absent father, etc.

The superhuman image may be able to explain matters such as why young black men are perceived to "be more 'adult' than White juveniles when judging culpability," write researchers Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter. If true, such a perception could outline the overwhelming racial disparities seen in prison systems throughout the country. 

This bizarre phenomenon could even have contributed to the immense hope Americans placed on President Barack Obama in 2008. As the Boston Globe recently pointed out, back in 2007 David Ehrenstein described Obama's campaign as such:

Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.

Republicans later even attempted to make light of the stereotype with CD's featuring a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro."

Although the trope has been criticized for some time, researchers behind this recent study say it's the first "empirical investigation" into the matter.

(h/t Science of Us)

 

People Who Use Obamacare Sure Do Like It

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 1:43 PM EST

Jonathan Cohn points us today to a Gallup poll with yet more good news for Obamacare. In a recent survey, the people who are actually using Obamacare gave it very high marks: 74 percent said the quality of health care they received was good or excellent, and 71 percent said the overall coverage was good or excellent. What's remarkable is that these numbers are nearly the same as those for everyone else with health insurance, which includes those with either employer coverage or Medicare. Here's the bottom line from Cohn:

You hear a lot about what’s wrong with the coverage available through the marketplaces and some of these criticisms are legitimate. The narrow networks of providers are confusing, for example, and lack of sufficient regulations leaves some patients unfairly on the hook for ridiculously high bills. But overall the plans turn out to be as popular as other forms of private and public insurance. It’s one more sign that, if you can just block out the negative headlines and political attacks, you’ll discover a program that is working.

Republicans can huff and puff all they want, but the evidence is clear: despite its rollout problems, Obamacare is a success. It's covering millions of people; its costs are in line with forecasts; and people who use it think highly of it. There's no such thing as a big, complex program that has no problems, and Obamacare has its share. But overall? It's a standup triple.

3 Ways Obama's Immigration Executive Action Changes Everything (and One Way It Doesn't)

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 12:19 PM EST

The details of President Barack Obama's much-rumored, much-debated executive action on immigration have been leaked to the press, and the broad outline, according to Fox News and the New York Times, includes deportation relief for upward of 5 million people.

Republicans are already lining up to block the White House's plans, and Obama's successor could go ahead and reverse course in 2017, anyway. Still, here are three reported provisions that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of the United States' 11 million undocumented immigrants:

1. Expansion of DACA, the program for DREAMers: Back in 2012, a Department of Homeland Security directive known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) extended deportation relief to those young immigrants who came to the United States before their 16th birthday and went on to graduate from high school or serve in the US military. As Vox's Dara Lind has reported, the program has been a success for the roughly 600,000 immigrants who received deferred action by June 2014, although just as many are eligible but haven't yet applied. According to the Fox News report, Obama's executive action would move the cutoff arrival date from June 2007 to January 1, 2010, and remove the age limit (31 as of June '12); a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report details how changes to the initial plan could make hundreds of thousands of immigrants DACA-eligible:

Migration Policy Institute, 2014

2. Relief for the undocumented parents of US citizen children: According to the Times, a key part of the executive action "will allow many parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to obtain legal work documents and no longer worry about being discovered, separated from their families and sent away," a move that would legalize anywhere from 2.5-3.3 million people. The Huffington Post reported in June that more than 72,000 parents of US-born children were deported in fiscal year 2013 alone; of those, nearly 11,000 had no criminal convictions. (One 2013 report estimated that 4.5 million US-born kids have at least one undocumented parent.)

3. Elimination of mandatory fingerprinting program: Under Secure Communities, or S-Comm, immigrants booked into local jails have their fingerprints run through a Homeland Security database to check their legal status. (If they're unauthorized, they can be held by local authorities until the feds come pick them up.) The program, which began under President George W. Bush and was greatly expanded under Obama, has long come under fire for quickly pushing people toward detention and potential deportation, as well as for contributing to racial profiling and even the detention of thousands of US citizens. According to one 2013 report, S-Comm led to the deportation of more than 300,000 immigrants from fiscal years 2009 to 2013.

There are other reported parts to Obama's plan, including hundreds of thousands of new tech visas and even pay raises for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. Still, given this year's border crisis, it's notable that the president's plan seems to make little to no mention of the folks who provoked it: the unaccompanied children and so-called "family units" (often mothers traveling with small kids) who came in huge numbers from Central America and claimed, in many cases, to be fleeing violence of some sort.

The administration has been particularly adamant about fast-tracking the deportation of those family unit apprehensions, whose numbers jumped from 14,855 in fiscal 2013 to 68,445 in fiscal 2014, a 361 percent increase. Meanwhile, ICE has renewed the controversial practice of family detention (a complaint has already been filed regarding sexual abuse in the new Karnes City, Texas, facility) and will soon open the largest immigration detention facility in the country, a 2,400-bed family center in Dilley, Texas—just as Obama starts rolling out what many immigration hardliners will no doubt attack as an unconstitutional amnesty.

This post has been updated.

Wakey, Wakey! Your Life Is Wasting Away.

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 10:33 AM EST

Melissa Dahl points us to a Reddit conversation with Dan Ariely, a Duke professor who's an expert on time management:

Ariely: One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don't require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Q: What are those hours? I must know.

Ariely: Generally people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.

That's a hell of a thing, isn't it? If Ariely is right, then almost by definition most of us waste the best hours of our lives. After all, by the time we eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, and commute to work, we've probably blown away the first 60-90 minutes of the day. And then, as Ariely says, we waste the next half hour chatting or checking email or working at some other low-priority task.

But not me! Mostly for time zone reasons, my habit for a while has been to wake up and come straight to the computer. After I get caught up on the news and write my first post, I eat a quick breakfast. Then I come back and keep blogging. My first two hours are consumed almost entirely by work.

So does that mean that my first two or three posts of the day are generally my best ones? I've never thought so. In fact, they're usually fairly short items. Later, as I engage more fully with the news of the day and the reactions of other bloggers, I start to write more substantive stuff. That's how it's always seemed, anyway. But maybe I'm wrong. What says the hive mind?

In any case, I have a doctor's appointment this morning (chemo round 4, only 12 to go!), so I shall sadly be wasting my most productive hours. On the bright side, the medical staff will presumably be at its peak. That's not a bad tradeoff, I guess. See you on the other side.