2012 - %3, August

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 2, 2012

Thu Aug. 2, 2012 10:23 AM EDT

US Army Staff Sergeant Elliot Robbins (second from right), 2d Calvary Regiment, tactically approaches a sniper position with his team while going through the React to Sniper Fire lane during the United States Army Europe's Best Warrior Competition in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The winners will be announced during an Aug. 16 award ceremony in Heidelberg, Germany. US Army photo by Staff Sergeant Pablo N. Piedra.

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Docs vs. Glocks

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Battling the Glock: Doctors could run afoul of Florida's government if they ask patients about firearms.

Less than a month before Florida hosts the Republican National Convention, the state's right-wing governor is pushing for an unusual law that privileges the Second Amendment over the First Amendment. Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that his administration will pursue a court appeal to defend the state's controversial "Docs vs. Glocks" law, which makes it a crime for doctors to ask patients if they own guns.

The 2011 "Firearm Owners' Privacy Act"—one of a series of NRA-backed, aggressive pro-gun laws passed by Florida's conservative Legislature in recent years—aims at keeping physicians from gathering information on patients' weapons while discussing their health risk factors. (Decades of studies have shown that even law-abiding, responsible gun owners and their families have higher risks of death by gunshot when they keep a firearm in the home.)

"Patients don't like being interrogated about whether or not they own guns when they take their child with a sore throat to a pediatrician, nor do they like being interrogated in an emergency room when their Little Leaguer broke his leg sliding into first base," the NRA's gun for hire in Florida, longtime firearms lobbyist Marion Hammer, told the Tampa Tribune last fall.*

Doctors have long been permitted to ask patients about other risk factors, like smoking and drinking (and patients, of course, have long had the freedom to lie about their bad habits). But asking about guns is different, say backers of the law, which could cost offending doctors their medical licenses and a $10,000 fine. Some even argue that federal power makes the law especially important. "Now we've got Obamacare, the government owns our health care," a 58-year-old Floridian told Sunshine State News. "They can coerce the names and habits of gun owners out of doctors' medical records, that's what scares me most. Maybe it won't happen today or tomorrow, but the ability to do it is there."

Apparently, you sometimes have to destroy the Constitution in order to save it. A federal judge tossed the "Docs vs. Glocks" law out of her district court last September, ruling that it trampled doctors' right to free speech. The law, Judge Marcia Cooke wrote, "aims to restrict a practitioner's ability to provide truthful, non-misleading information to a patient"—information that she said "simply does not interfere with the right to keep and bear arms."

The governor disagrees. "This law was carefully crafted to respect the First Amendment while ensuring a patient's constitutional right to own or possess a firearm without discrimination," Scott said in his statement. "I signed this legislation into law because I believe it is constitutional and I will continue to defend it."

Highlight Reel: Senate Climate Change Smackdown

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In summer 2009, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) butted heads in what was to be the last Senate hearing on climate change for three years. Then, the debate was over pending climate change legislation, with both sides firing off the usual arguments: obstructionism by the right and overspending by the left. The two powerhouse legislators locked horns again yesterday on climate change for the first time since then, but this time the argument amongst members of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee was back to climate kindergarten: Is it actually happening?

Fortunately, there were actually a few climate scientists on hand, including IPCC lead author Christopher Field and Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy, along with John Christy, an Alabama climatologist tapped by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to lead the denial side. Later, the panel heard from a trio of business and civic planning officials, who testified on the public health risks posed by climate change and on ways private enterprise can adapt (or not).

CHARTS: Why Your Chicken Is Still Making You Sick

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Got a tummy ache? It could well be something you ate. That's the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest assessment of food-borne illnesses, dropped on its web site with zero fanfare, not even a press release, Friday afternoon. It shows that that infection rates from most common food-related pathogens are either inching up or holding steady—and occurring at levels above the CDC's own targets.

Here's a look at how the rates three of the most common pathogens—campylobacter, salmonella, and shigella—have changed since 1996.

Chart by Azeen GhorayshiChart by Azeen Ghorayshi

And for you disease wonks out there, here's the data from the report, which includes numbers on some of the other common pathogens, as well.  STEC refers to Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli strains—that is, the kinds that make you sick to your stomach—and the numbers are infections per 100,000 people.

Food poisoning: not getting better.  Source: CDCFood poisoning: not getting better Source: CDC

Mitt Romney's Plan to Screw the Middle Class

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:02 PM EDT

There are two parts to Mitt Romney's tax plan. Here they are:

Part 1: Romney wants to lower tax rates. This part of his plan is extremely detailed. Tax rates would be cut by a fifth across the board. Taxation of investment income would be eliminated for families with incomes under $200,000. The estate tax would be eliminated. The Alternative Minimum Tax would be eliminated. Obamacare's payroll tax increase on the wealthy would be repealed. The corporate tax rate would be cut to 25%.

Part 2: Romney wants to eliminate or reduce various tax credits and deductions in order to increase revenue. This would make up for the lost revenue from Part 1. However, he has provided zero detail about this part of his plan.

Isn't that odd? Romney has extremely specific thoughts about lowering tax rates and is willing to share chapter and verse. But when it comes to the part where you raise some taxes to make up for it, he suddenly thinks he ought to defer to Congress on the details instead of doing their job for them. Why is that?

The analysts at the Tax Policy Center provide a pretty good clue today. Romney himself won't say anything about the credits and deductions he'd target, so they made the most progressive assumptions they possibly could about them by "starting at the top." That is, they made a list of all the possible credits and deductions and then completely eliminated them for the highest income group. This would produce the largest possible tax increase for the wealthy. Then they worked their way down, and by the time they got to the bottom group they reduced the credits and deductions only enough to make the whole plan revenue neutral. This produced the smallest possible tax increase for the non-wealthy.

So: the biggest possible increase for the wealthy, the smallest possible increase for the less wealthy. For technical reasons, they could only model this down to $200,000, but that's enough to show what Romney's plan would do. You can see it in the chart on the right. When you combine the decrease in rates and the increase from credits and deductions, millionaires would get a tax cut of 4.1%. Everyone under $200,000 would get a tax increase of 1.2%.

At this point, President Obama's problem is trying to get people to believe that Romney actually supports a plan that's so outlandishly friendly to the rich. When the Priorities USA Super PAC tried to inform voters about Paul Ryan's similar plan, Robert Draper reports that "the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing." And Romney, of course, will hide behind the fact that he himself hasn't endorsed any particular basket of tax increases to make up for his rate cuts, so the Brookings analysis is just guesswork.

Still, it's the most sympathetic analysis possible. Any other basket of credits and deductions would make things even better for the wealthy and even worse for the non-wealthy. It might be, in Jon Chait's words, cartoonishly evil to think that any politician would actually propose such a plan, but Romney has done exactly that. The only question is whether anyone can make the voters believe it.

Study: Romney Plan Increases Taxes On 95% Of Americans

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 3:46 PM EDT

Mitt Romney has been on the defensive today over a new study that found his tax plan would most likely increase taxes on the middle class in order to pay for a hefty tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. The study (pdf) by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center scrutinizes Romney's plan to pay for a variety of tax cuts by closing tax loopholes. It concludes that under the most progressive approach possible, Romney's plan would give an $87,000 tax cut to people making more than $1 million a year but require 95 percent of Americans to pay more taxes—on average, $500 more per year.

"He's asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut," Obama said from the campaign trail in Ohio today.

Romney has pushed back against the study, claiming that the Tax Policy Center (a wing of the Brookings Institution) is a "liberal" group. But as ThinkProgress points out, Romney praised the Tax Policy Center's analysis of Gov. Rick Perry's tax plan during the GOP primaries, calling it an "objective, third-party analysis."

Here's TPC's chart illustrating who will win and lose from Romney's tax plan:

Tax Policy Center and Brookings InstitutionTax Policy Center and Brookings Institution

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House GOPer Compares Free Birth Control Day to 9/11

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 2:48 PM EDT
This is not the same as affordable birth control.

According to Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), today is a day akin to 9/11 and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. No, really. "I want you to remember Aug. 1, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom," Kelly said at a press conference. "That is a day that will live in infamy, along with those other dates."

Kelly was ranting for the same reason I'm rejoicing—because today is "Free Birth Control Day" in the United States. Today is the day the new mandate requiring health insurers to provide contraception with no co-pay officially goes into effect. And I use the word "free" loosely, since it's not actually free—it's paid for through our premiums, just like other medical services. But once the rule is fully implemented, your out-of-pocket costs for contraception should fall to zero.

Some women won't start benefitting from the new rule until their new plan year begins, which varies by insurer. For me, it kicked in a few months ago, when my insurer agreed to cover the cost of an intrauterine device (IUD) after previously refusing to cover it.

Before the health care law, if I wanted to get an IUD, I would have had to pay about $1,200 upfront for the device and the insertion. I've been through pretty much every other type of contraception out there, and they just weren't working for a variety of reasons—some I am allergic to, some made me a crazy lady, and others came with a steep monthly price. Then there was the fact that I am just not very good at taking a pill every day at the same time, which is crucial if your birth control is going to actually control birth. And I'm not the only American woman who sucks at taking birth control.

Enter the IUD. Like many women, it was the right choice for me. But although it's cheaper in the long term because it's good for up to five years, I didn't really have $1,200 laying around to cover it upfront. This is true for a lot of women, according to Dr. Nancy Stanwood, an obstetrician/gynecologist with the Yale School of Medicine and a board member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. "I have seen so many women want to choose a method of contraception but have it out of reach financially," Stanwood says. "Instead of women looking at their medical needs and the needs of their family, they had to instead look in their pocketbook."

Here's an infographic from the National Women's Law Center illustrating how I, and many women felt before the birth control mandate:

National Women's Law CenterNational Women's Law Center

Fed Continues to Twiddle Its Thumbs

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 2:40 PM EDT

Here is the latest statement from the Fed:

The Committee expects economic growth to remain moderate over coming quarters and then to pick up very gradually. Consequently, the Committee anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only slowly toward levels that it judges to be consistent with its dual mandate. Furthermore, strains in global financial markets continue to pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook. The Committee anticipates that inflation over the medium term will run at or below the rate that it judges most consistent with its dual mandate.

So there you have it. Unemployment remains higher than the Fed's target and inflation remains at or below its target. The obvious response is to target unemployment more strongly since inflation is likely to remain subdued. Instead, the Fed announced it would do nothing new.

That sound you hear is millions of people who actually care about unemployment banging their heads against the wall in frustration. Easier monetary policy might or might not be effective, but it seems like even the Fed thinks it would be a pretty low risk thing to try. So why not try it?

Did Drought Cause India's Power Outage?

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 2:23 PM EDT

What caused the vast power grid failure that roiled India this week? Precise causes remain unknown, but one emerging explanation points a finger at the nation's severe drought. Here's the New York Times:

Part of the reason may be that low rainfall totals have restricted the amount of power delivered by hydroelectric dams, which India relies on for much of its power needs. Another cause may be that drought-stricken farmers are using more power than expected to run water pumps to irrigate their crops.

That's a drought-related double whammy: Low rainfall crimps energy supply because of its effect on hydropower, and jacks up demand by forcing farmers to irrigate more.

Why Does Ed DeMarco Hate Principal Forgiveness?

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 1:45 PM EDT

The Treasury Department recently offered a deal to the Federal Housing Finance Agency: a tripled incentive to participate in a program of loan forgiveness to underwater homeowners. Yesterday, FHFA released an analysis that suggested this might be a good deal for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but probably not for taxpayers. So they declined to participate. This has produced many, many calls for President Obama to fire Ed DeMarco, the acting head of FHFA. The basic argument is that FHFA's job is to worry about what's good for FHFA, not what's good for the taxpayers. That's Treasury's job.

Point taken. But if you dig into both FHFA's report and the technical appendices (here and here), something more interesting is at work here. Two things in particular struck me. First, FHFA's various models do indeed suggest that FHFA would come out ahead if they took up the Treasury offer. But:

The vast majority of the benefits are derived from those loans where the homeowner has not made a mortgage payment in more than a year and whose current LTV is greater than 140 percent, as shown in Table 4 of the appendix. Given that early intervention is the key factor to the success of modifications, relying on successful modifications from borrowers who have not made a mortgage payment in more than a year as supporting the Enterprises’ use of principal forgiveness does not seem warranted, despite the modeled results. Second, the HAMP NPV model by assuming principal is fully reduced at the outset as compared to over the course of three years, likely overstates the benefits of principal reduction on reducing default probabilities.

This is....peculiar. The authors of the report seem to be saying that they don't believe their own agency's models. But how can this be? If FHFA thinks that FHFA's models don't take all the relevant factors into account, then FHFA should create better models. If these issues are genuine, why didn't the modelers consider them?

Second, the report argues that because FHFA would be required to offer principal forgiveness according to strict rules (unlike private banks, which are allowed to use more discretion), homeowners who are current on their payments would find it easy to game the system and claim hardship, hoping to get a principal reduction. If too many homeowners did this, it would wipe out FHFA's benefit:

As few as 14,000 strategic modifications (only one percent of all potential HAMP PRA eligible current borrowers) to as many as 126,000 (nine percent of those borrowers) would eliminate the Enterprise benefit of HAMP PRA.

Again, I'm puzzled about why this isn't incorporated into a bigger model. Why create a bunch of model scenarios (the study includes more than a dozen), and then discuss reasons the models might be off? Why not model both the early intervention problem and the strategic default problem and then produce a final set of scenarios?

In a sense, I think the criticisms of DeMarco are off. If his only issue was that he didn't like Treasury's program because it would cost the taxpayers money, that would be pretty inexcusable. It's up to Treasury to decide how to spend taxpayer money. But that doesn't really seem to be his biggest problem. His real problems are these:

  • He doesn't believe his own models. He thinks success rates will be low because the program targets homeowners who are too far gone, and that strategic defaults might wipe out any gain from the incentive subsidies.
  • He believes that reducing monthly payments is the key part of any loan modification program, and that the existing principal forbearance program does that just as well as principal forgiveness, and with less risk to taxpayers.
  • Principal forgiveness is a brand new program and would cost a considerable amount of money to implement.

I'm not sure what to think of all this, but I do think these are the most concrete issues at hand, not the sideshow of taxpayer costs. The question is whether they're legitimate, and that's difficult to answer. I can't help but think there's some kind of wonk war going on within FHFA, with the modeling team refusing to take everything into account that the management team thinks they should. Or something like that. Whatever it is, though, it makes it pretty hard to fairly evaluate FHFA's case for turning down Treasury.