US Army soldiers from B Troop, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Duke move towards a mission objective during Operation Tofan 2 in Suri Khel, Afghanistan, Sept. 15, 2011. The mission objective was to clear insurgents from the town of Suri Khel and prevent them from returning. US Army photo by Sgt. Joseph Watson.

According to a study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 2011 health insurance premiums for employer-sponsored family healthcare benefits rose 9 percent over last year's prices, leaving employees to pay, on average, $4,129 and employer contributions at $10,944. The number represents a surprising rise given that increases experienced in 2010 were just 3 percent.

So, why the sudden increase?

We know that Americans are using fewer medical services since the economy took a dive as people are staying away from the doctor and putting off non-life saving surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, until they have more confidence that they will have the money required to pay deductibles and co-pays. We also know that fewer medical services are being utilized as a result of the increased popularity of Health Safety Accounts which require deductibles in excess of $2,000 per family, and employer provided policies that have increasingly large deductibles and co-pays.

As a result, can it possibly make sense that medical costs are increasing by the 9 percent reflected in the hefty premium hikes? In a word, no.

That will not stop the anti-Obamacare forces, of course, from putting the blame squarely on healthcare reform. In a sense, I suppose the Affordable Care Act does bear some of the responsibility—if you can consider motivating the health insurers to falsely inflate their prices, by forcing them to do the right thing, to be a blamable offense.

Headline of the Day

Someone on the New York Times copy desk pretty much nails it today:

Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told reporters that "short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running" for president. Today, according to that trusted source, Fox News, he still isn't running. But between all the colorful denials, Christie has been quietly (and repeatedly) meeting with wealthy Republican donors, including—as Mother Jones recently revealed—the notorious Koch brothers.

For months, Christie has been under "huge pressure from high-ranking Republicans and fund-raisers," as one anonymous source recently put it, who are unhappy with the prospect of choosing between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. These players include hedge-fund exec Paul Singer, who has given more than $1 million to the "Kochtopus," and Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone, who organized a July Manhattan meeting of "40-50 Republican heavy-hitters" to persuade Christie to run. Both social moderates who support gay marriage, Singer and Langone are apparently drawn to Christie's prioritizing of union-bashing, budget-slashing economic issues over moral-values plays.

On Friday, the conservative media outlet Newsmax reported, without naming names, that the Draft Christie movement "culminated in a hush-hush powwow held in the past week with Christie and several notable Republican billionaires." A source in the know told Newsmax that "Christie seemed inclined to enter the race."

It's a slow news days, so everyone is highlighting the latest Kaiser report on healthcare costs. Guess what? They're up!

I don't have a ton to say on the fact that healthcare costs are increasing, but it's worth pointing out what this means for household incomes. In the last year, for example, the Census Bureau reports that median household incomes dropped from $49,777 to $49,445. That's a decrease of 0.7%.

But households also got compensation in the form of healthcare insurance. According to the Kaiser report, the employer share of healthcare premiums increased from $9,773 to $10,994. So let's add this up:

  • 2010: $49,777 + $9,773 = $59,550
  • 2011: $49,445 + $10,994 = $60,439

Suddenly, instead of a decrease, we have an increase of 1.5%. Adjusted for inflation, this is still a net loss, but it's a smaller one: about -1.2% instead of -3.4%. (All numbers are a bit rough since the sampling periods aren't identical. But they're probably accurate within a tenth of a point or two.)

Obviously the Great Recession is still taking its toll on household incomes. But so is healthcare. Household cash incomes have dropped considerably over the past decade, and that's a sign of something seriously wrong with the economy. But it's also a sign that instead of cash, we're increasingly taking our compensation in the form of ever more healthcare. That's probably a bad deal for most of us.

This would be kind of funny, if it weren't terrible. The Daily Caller claimed on Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is going to have to hire 230,000 new employees just to put new climate rules in place. And then others, including Fox News, repeated it, as Media Matters highlights today.

The problem is not only the fact that the number is, uh, inconceivable, given that the EPA currently only employs 17,000 people. But the story actually managed to pull that number from a court filing about what the EPA is trying to avoid. In the court filing, the EPA is defending its rule that would only limit emissions from the largest sources of greenhouse gases. The so-called "tailoring rule" is designed to reduce the regulatory burden that setting rules for all emission sources could create, the EPA argues. As the EPA explained in its brief, without that rule:

Sources needing operating permits would jump from 14,700 to 6.1 million as a result of application of Title V to greenhouse gases, a 400-fold increase. … Hiring the 230,000 full-time employees necessary to produce the 1.4 billion work hours required to address the actual increase in permitting functions would result in an increase in the Title V administration costs of $21 billion per year.

The sick twist, of course, is that the EPA is filing this brief because a bunch of polluters have sued the agency to stop the tailoring rule. The polluters and allies claim that the EPA doesn't have the authority to adjust the Clean Air Act in this way—which is somewhat ironic, given that the change would have the effect of weakening the global warming regulations that these same companies dislike so much. (Some enviros have sued as well, though they argue that the EPA should be going farther in its regulations.)

If the challengers are successful in getting the court to throw out the tailoring rule, the EPA would have to start going after all sources of emissions—creating exactly the kind of unmanageable regulatory burden that the EPA's brief warns of. Only then would the Daily Caller and Fox News have the crazy bureaucratic nightmare that they're currently (and falsely) ginning up fears about.

Darrell Issa chairs a hearing in Washington, DC, on January 26, 2001

When the 2010 electoral wave handed control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had finally arrived at his moment in the sun.

With the GOP now in the majority, the twice-arrested (but never convicted) six-term Congressman, whose ability to charm and exude good humor belies behavior that would suggest the heart of a shark, ascended to the chairmanship of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Armed with subpoena power and the authority to investigate, hassle, and obstruct the Obama White House for at least the remainder of the president's first term, Issa found himself firmly ensconced in the catbird seat.

Making the position all the sexier was the media attention that came with the job, including guest appearances on Real Time With Bill Maher, frequent visits to the cable news shows, and a busy Sunday morning network talk show schedule.

All the attention seemed to suit Rep. Issa just fine. And then…nothing.

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, of "Jersey Shore" fame, is not one of Chris Christie's preferred pop-culture heroes.

Sure, progressive types can grumble plenty about the things Chris Christie has done. For starters, New Jersey's Republican governor has proposed reckless gutting of his state's Medicaid program, compared teachers' union reps to drug cartels, and lavishly spent taxpayer dollars on himself along the way.

But at least he doesn't like MTV's Jersey Shore. Reuters reports:

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed on Monday a $420,000 film tax credit dubbed the "Snooki Subsidy" for the reality show "The Jersey Shore," citing the state's budget crunch. ...

"As chief executive, I am duty-bound to ensure that taxpayers are not footing a $420,000 bill for a project which does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the state and its citizens," Christie said in the letter. ...

The response from MTV...was sober and brief. "The governor's decision will not impact the show," MTV spokesman Nathaniel Brown said.

In other words, the governor is refusing to subject anyone to a government-sponsored this:

That's something even the most Christie-hating liberal in the Garden State should be able to proudly support.

BP's Back, Baby!

Last Friday, BP filed its first plan for new exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. It's only been a year and a half since the company dumped several million barrels of oil into the Gulf, but it already feels ready to hunt for more, this time in the Keathley Canyon area.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a good piece on BP's new proposal for exploration in the Gulf. As the Times-Pic notes, it's not like BP hasn't been out there since the spill. The company has continued work on its old wells, and its ventures with Chevron, BHP Billiton, and Noble Energy have all moved forward. But the Keathley Canyon exploration is the first new solo project for the company since the spill. A piece from Reuters includes this tidbit:

After calling a full-stop on new offshore drilling after the spill, U.S. regulators have approved new drilling plans for many other companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron , but not for BP.
"I think it will be interesting to see whether BP is treated any differently. The word is they won't, but we'll see," said Phil Weiss of Argus Research in New York.
"It's significant in that, assuming it's approved, it gives BP the ability to get back to work on a project they're in charge of," Weiss said.
"All operators are held to the same enhanced safety and environmental standards put in place following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill," a BOEM spokeswoman said.

The last part is what's interesting to me. One would hope that all offshore drilling proposals are subject to rigorous consideration before they are approved, of course. But it's a little alarming that a company like BP can dump 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf and, a year and a half later, not be subject to any more scrutiny than other drillers. Not even a little.

It's also worth noting that the oil spill response bill the House passed last year would have at least barred oil companies with bad records from obtaining new leases in the Gulf. But that bill didn't go anywhere in the Senate, and therefore is not a law today. What BP is applying for now is approval of an exploration plan, not a new lease, but it is a good reminder that despite last year's disaster, there are no new restrictions on what BP can do in the Gulf.

More 11-dimensional chess from President Obama! He says he has no interest in further gun control, and he's done nothing to restrict gun ownership, but NRA president Wayne LaPierre sees what the rest of us don't:

Obama himself is no fool. So when he got elected, they concocted a scheme to stay away from the gun issue, lull gun owners to sleep and play us for fools in 2012. Well, gun owners are not fools and we are not fooled.

Sotomayor, Kagan, Fast & Furious, the United Nations, executive orders. Those are the facts we face today....President Obama and his cohorts, yeah, they're going to deny their conspiracy to fool gun owners. Some in the liberal media, they are already probably blogging about it. But we don't care because the lying, conniving Obama crowd can kiss our Constitution!

What good is 11-dimensional chess when your opponents are playing in 12 dimensions? Obama has met his match.