Kevin Drum

Hating On Obamacare Not Really a Great Strategy for GOP Governors

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 9:40 AM EDT

Does opposing Obamacare hurt you or help you if you're a Republican governor? To find out, Sam Wang took a look at nine Republican governors who were first elected in 2010 and are now running for reelection. The chart on the right tells the story. Governors who have resisted Medicaid expansion—a key part of Obamacare, and the one that most directly affects individual states—are generally doing poorly. Those who accepted Medicaid expansion are polling pretty well. However, Wang notes that Obamacare probably isn't entirely responsible for this divide:

Think of the Medicaid expansion as a “proxy variable,” one that is predictive of stands on many other issues. For example, even as Pennsylvania voters have trended toward the Democrats, Corbett got behind several radical redistricting schemes, cut education funding deeply, and compared gay marriage to incest. In Maine, LePage has called legislators idiots and state workers corrupt, told the N.A.A.C.P. to “kiss [his] butt,” and held multiple meetings with “sovereign citizens” who advocate secession. In short, if you’re too hard-core or offensive, some of your constituents can get turned off.

The Republicans Susana Martinez, of New Mexico, John Kasich, of Ohio, and Rick Snyder, of Michigan, look as strong as they did when they were first elected. All three accepted the Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion....This stance by Martinez, Kasich, and Snyder has been predictive of their support of other issues with that have drawn support from both parties. Martinez and Kasich, for example, have pursued education-reform policies that have gained a lot of traction among both Democrats and Republicans. To the extent that governors hold on to their offices in close races, it may be because they have focussed on issues that are important to the voters in their states rather than the core views of their party.

In other words, refusing the Medicaid expansion is the mark of a true-believing wingnut, and that's not such a great place to be right now. Conversely, accepting the Medicaid expansion is the mark of a pragmatic conservative, and those folks have remained relatively popular.

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Bonus Sunday Cat Blogging - 24 August 2014

| Sun Aug. 24, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

I've gotten several queries about how Mozart is doing, and as you might expect, the answer is that Mozart is delighted with his new home. Last night at dusk he was leaping around in my mother's native habitat garden and chasing all the little things that only cats can see at dusk. Everyone else is doing fine too. So as a bit of bonus catblogging, here's my mother's entire brood. From top to bottom, we have Mozart, Ditto, and Tillamook. Enjoy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Here's Domino helping Marian with a bit of gardening in the front yard. The days may not be sunny and warm forever, so she's taking advantage of whatever ones are left to her.

Did Obamacare Wreck a Baseball Game?

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 2:20 PM EDT

A few days ago, a Chicago Cubs game was called in the fifth inning after the grounds crew had so much trouble spreading a tarp that the field got soaked during a rain delay and play couldn't be continued. The Corner reveals what really happened:

Insiders at the ball club report that the real culprit is Obamacare. Because the Affordable Care Act requires offering health benefits to employees who work more than 130 hours per month or 30 hours a week (“full time”), the Cubs organization reorganized much of its staff during the off-season. Sources that spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times claimed that, on Tuesday night, the crew was drastically “undermanned.”

Huh. What do you think of that, Dean Baker?

The problem with this story is that employer sanctions are not in effect for 2014. In other words, the Cubs will not be penalized for not providing their ground crew with insurance this year even if they work more than 30 hours per week. Apparently the Cubs management has not been paying attention to the ACA rules. This is yet another example of the skills gap that is preventing managers from operating their businesses effectively.

Quite so. My guess is that this is just another installment in the long-running effort of American corporations to use Obamacare as a scapegoat for everything under the sun. Usually this has to do with raising copays for their employees or something like that, but the ingenuity of American capitalism knows no bounds. Why not blame a rain delay on Obamacare too?

For a more likely cause of penny pinching on the grounds crew, the Wall Street Journal has you covered.

Chart of the Day: Welfare Reform and the Great Recession

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 1:04 PM EDT

CBPP has posted a series of charts showing the effects of welfare reform on the poor over the past couple of decades. In its first few years it seemed like a great success: welfare rolls went down substantially in the late 90s while the number of poor people with jobs went up. But the late 90s were a boom time, and this probably would have happened anyway. Welfare reform may have provided an extra push, but it was a bubbly economy that made the biggest difference.

So how would welfare reform fare when it got hit with a real test? Answer: not so well. I added some red recession shading to the CBPP chart on the right, and as you can see, the Great Recession created an extra 1.5 million families with children in poverty. TANF, however, barely responded at all. There was no room in strapped state budgets for more TANF funds:

The TANF block grant fundamentally altered both the structure and the allowable uses of federal and state dollars previously spent on AFDC and related programs. Under TANF, the federal government gives states a fixed block grant totaling $16.5 billion each year....Because the block grant has never been increased or adjusted for inflation, states received 32 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars in 2014 than they did in 1997.  State minimum-required contributions to TANF have declined even more. To receive their full TANF block grant, states only have to spend on TANF purposes 80 percent of the amount they spent on AFDC and related programs in 1995. That “maintenance of effort” requirement isn’t adjusted for inflation, either.

Welfare reform isn't a subject I know a lot about. I didn't follow it during the 90s, and I haven't seriously studied it since then. With that caveat understood, I'd say that some of the changes it made strike me as reasonable. However, its single biggest change was to transform welfare from an entitlement to a block grant. What happened next was entirely predictable: the size of the block grant was never changed, which means we basically allowed inflation to erode it over time. It also made it impossible for TANF to respond to cyclical economic booms and busts.

Make no mistake: this is why conservatives are so enamored of block grants. It's not because they truly believe that states are better able to manage programs for the poor than the federal government. That's frankly laughable. The reason they like block grants is because they know perfectly well that they'll erode over time. That's how you eventually drown the federal government in a bathtub.

If Paul Ryan ever seriously proposes—and wins Republican support for—a welfare reform plan that includes block grants which (a) grow with inflation and (b) adjust automatically when recessions hit, I'll pay attention. Until then, they're just a Trojan Horse for slowly but steadily eliminating federal programs that help the poor. After all, those tax cuts for the rich won't fund themselves, will they?

Obamacare May Not Be Popular, But Its Provisions Sure Are

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Brian Beutler on the way health care reform is playing out in the Arkansas Senate race:

The most interesting thing about Senator Mark Pryor’s decision to tout his support for the Affordable Care Act in a well-financed, statewide television ad isn’t that he stands apart from other embattled Democrats this election cycle. It’s that Republicans scrambled to spin the story, insisting to reporters that Pryor couldn’t possibly be running on Obamacare if he won’t refer to the law by name.

....Instead, Pryor says, "I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or deny [sic] coverage based on pre-existing conditions.” Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything about “a law” at all, but that’s a niggling, semantic critique. That Republicans working to defeat Pryor are asking reporters to squeeze the word “Obamacare” into this sentence is an admission that they’ve lost the policy fight. They criticize Pryor for eschewing the label, because the label’s just about the only thing they’re comfortable assailing.

I suppose this isn't the biggest thing in the world, and as Beutler says, Republicans did manage to talk several reporters into mentioning this. So from their point of view, it's just savvy media strategy. Besides, the truth is that Republicans have always focused on only a few things in their critique of Obamacare. That's because polls have shown for years that most of the provisions of the law are popular even though support for the law itself is pretty shaky. This causes Republicans endless grief, since Democrats get to harass them relentlessly about whether they oppose closing the donut hole; whether they oppose subsidy assistance; whether they oppose guaranteed issue; and so on. Republicans can hem and haw about how they'd keep all this stuff and only get rid of the nasty taxes and mandates, but even the dimmer bulbs in the GOP caucus know perfectly well that this is untrue.

In any case, other Democratic politicians have touted their support for specific provisions of Obamacare, so Pryor isn't really doing anything new. He's just being smart. He knows that denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions is extremely unpopular, even among conservative voters, and he'd love to draw his opponent into a debate about exactly that. Tom Cotton has so far refused to take the bait, pretending that he'd somehow keep that provision while repealing everything else. This is a bald-faced lie, of course, but if he sticks to that story like glue he can probably avoid any serious damage from Pryor's attacks.

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The Intersection of Social Liberalism and Social Media is Brutal

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 3:14 PM EDT

I think it's safe to say that Freddie deBoer is considerably to my left. But even he finds much of contemporary social liberalism dispiriting and self-righteous:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing.

....I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks....If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.

....People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.

Now, I suspect that this is a more acute problem on university campuses than in the rest of the world, so it hits deBoer and his students harder than it does many of the rest of us. But I think deBoer is right when he says that social media has largely sanded away the differences. If you make a mistake these days, you won't just get a disapproving stare or maybe an email or two about it. You'll get an endless stream of hate from Twitter and Facebook. And while it's easy to point out that a few hundred angry tweets aren't really all that many compared to the millions of people on Twitter, it can feel devastating if you're on the business end of this kind of avalanche. You're not thinking in terms of percentages or small fringes, you're just reading what seems like a relentless flood of scorn and malice. And it can be overwhelming, especially if you're not accustomed to it.

Some of this is simply the price of speaking in public. The problem is that in the past there were lots of different publics. Some were small, maybe no more than family or friends. Some were a bit larger: people you worked with, or went to school with. There were local publics, statewide publics, and national publics. The bigger the public you addressed, the more vitriol you could expect to get in return. The vitriol still wasn't fun, but it was, in some sense, a trade made with your eyes open.

No longer. If you write a blog post or a tweet, and the wrong person just happens to highlight it, your public is suddenly gigantic whether you meant it to be or not. Then the avalanche comes. And, as deBoer says, the avalanche is dominated by the loudest, angriest, least tolerant fringes of the language and conduct police.

I suspect this wouldn't be so bad if there were an equal and opposite reaction to the avalanche. If the hundreds of angry tweets were balanced by hundreds of more thoughtful tweets, it wouldn't be so overwhelming. But what thoughtful person wants to get involved in this kind of thing? No one. That's almost the definition of being thoughtful, after all. So the vitriol pours in, and it's soul-crushing.

And with that, I'm sort of petering out. I feel like I should have a sharper point to make about all this, but I don't really. I don't know what the answer is, or even whether there is an answer. Maybe if I get a few hundred hate-tweets in response, I'll think of something.

Chart of the Day: The Horrible Toll of the Recession on the Poor

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

When we talk about rising income inequality, we usually talk about the skyrocketing pay of the top 1 percent. And that's quite proper, since that's the main driver of increasing inequality.

But new census data shows that when it comes to net worth—which is basically total wealth—the biggest change has been at the bottom. Even after taking some lumps immediately after the recession, the well-off had recovered and even made some gains by 2011. But the poor have been devastated. Their median net worth has always been pretty close to zero, but by 2011 it had plummeted to $-6,029. On average, poor families were in the hole to the tune of $6,000, an astronomical and completely debilitating number to someone with barely poverty-level earnings.

In other words, when it comes to wealth, the rich really are getting richer, and the poor really are getting poorer. A lot poorer.

Russian Sanctions Mostly Hitting Russian Consumers

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 11:52 AM EDT

The BBC reports on how those Russian sanctions against Western food have put the squeeze on European and American suppliers:

Moscow officials say frozen fish prices in the capital's major supermarkets have risen by 6%, milk by 5.3% and an average cheese costs 4.4% more than it did before the 7 August ban took effect. Russia has banned imports of those basic foods, as well as meat and many other products, from Western countries, Australia and Japan. It is retaliation for the West's sanctions on Russia over the revolt by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

And it is not just Moscow. On the island of Sakhalin, in Russia's far east, officials say the price of chicken thighs has soared 60%. Before the sanctions these were among the cheapest and most popular meat products in Russia.

Oops. Sorry about that. It's actually Russian consumers who are paying the price. And for now, that seems to be OK:

Polls show that the vast majority of Russians approve of the sanctions against Western food. They have been told by government officials and state-controlled TV that the embargo will not affect prices, and that it will actually allow Russia's own agriculture to flourish. And that message is being believed.

At a guess, Russian consumers aren't very different from American consumers. Nationalistic pride will work for a while, as people accept higher prices as the cost of victory against whoever they're fighting at the moment. But that won't last any longer in Russia than it does in America. Give it a few months and public opinion is likely to turn decidedly surly. Who really cares about those damn Ukrainians anyway? They're just a bunch of malcontents and always have been, amirite?

This is why Vladimir Putin needs a quick victory. The fact that he's not getting it will eventually prompt him to either (a) quietly give up, or (b) go all in. Unfortunately, there's really no telling which it will be.

In Ferguson, Cops Hand Out 3 Warrants Per Household Every Year

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 11:13 AM EDT

Alex Tabarrok comments on the rather remarkable caseload of Ferguson's municipal court:

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of....If you are arrested and jailed you will probably lose your job and perhaps also your apartment—all because of a speeding ticket.

We've all seen a number of stories like this recently, and it prompts a question: why are police departments allowed to fund themselves with ticket revenue in the first place? Or red light camera revenue. Or civil asset forfeiture revenue. Or any other kind of revenue that provides them with an incentive to be as hardass as possible. Am I missing something when I think that this makes no sense at all?

This is sort of a genuine question. I know these policies are common, but where did they come from? Are they deliberate, created by politicians who like the idea of giving their local cops an incentive to get tough? Were they mostly the idea of police departments themselves, who figured the revenue from fines would provide a net boost in their annual funding? Or did they just accrete over time, popping up whenever there was a budget crisis and then never going away?

Does anyone know?