Kevin Drum

Obamacare Notches Another Win. Are You Tired of Winning Yet?

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 12:08 PM EDT

I've mentioned before that one of the reasons Obamacare signup rates are below projections is because employer coverage is above projections. Back in 2010, analysts assumed that employers would steadily drop health coverage and simply pay their employees to buy insurance on the exchanges. But that hasn't happened—and that's a good thing.

Now the New York Times has joined the party, so maybe everyone else will start to get this too:

The surprise turnaround adds to an emerging consensus about the contentious health law: It has not upturned the core of the country’s health insurance system, even while insuring millions of low-income people.

....About 155 million Americans have employer-based health insurance coverage in 2016, according to an analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office last month. The number will fall to 152 million people in 2019, the C.B.O. estimates, but will remain stable through 2026. Slightly more than half of people under 65 will be enrolled in employment-based coverage.

Employers seem to be staying the course even more strongly than they did before the law. The percentage of adults under 65 with employer-based insurance held firm for the last five years after steadily declining since 1999, according to an analysis of federal data released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which closely tracks the health insurance market.

The CDC has been tracking health coverage for years, and their numbers show that private coverage (not including exchanges) has gone up since Obamacare went live. These numbers include both employer coverage and private coverage purchased off-exchange, but employer coverage is by far the biggest component and there's no special reason to think that off-exchange individual coverage has increased much. This provides a very strong indication that the employer market has stayed healthy, and the CBO report confirms this.

If you want to know how Obamacare is doing, don't look at Obamacare enrollments compared to early projections. Instead, look at the total uninsured rate compared to early projections. That's the only number that provides a comprehensive look at all forms of health insurance and how they've done compared to predictions. When you do that, you'll find that Obamacare is actually doing a little better than anyone thought it would.

To paraphrase a prominent politician, I wonder if Obamacare's critics are tired of losing all the time? If so, come on over to the side of light and goodness. You'll win so much you'll get tired of winning.

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Donald Trump Apparently Wants a Cold War With Mexico

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 10:42 AM EDT

Donald Trump has finally explained how he would force Mexico to pay for a border wall, and it's pretty much what you'd expect. Basically, the idea is to threaten Mexico with financial ruin unless they pay up:

Trump would also threaten to raise tariffs, cancel visas, and raise visa fees. But if Mexico writes us a big check, all the threats go away and we can be friends again.

Trump didn't threaten to send troops over the border, but otherwise this is a very Roman Empire approach to foreign affairs. In that sense, it's reminiscent of his threat to pull out troops from other countries unless they pony up big bags of tribute to pay for protection. Trump really does believe that the biggest, richest, most militarily dominant country in the history of the world is just a poor little waif being taken advantage of by everyone else.

Needless to say, anyone with a handful of working brain cells knows that Mexico would never pay this extortion money. Their voters wouldn't put up with it any more than ours would. If Trump actually went through with this—which is questionable since it would end up in court on day 2—he'd create a permanent enemy on our Southern border. Just what we need. And Mexico would probably retaliate by encouraging even greater illegal immigration into the US.

What a fuckwit. I really don't know what we did to deserve this.

Here Are the Final Wisconsin Poll Results for the Republican Primary

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 1:08 AM EDT

For everyone who still cares, here's the final Pollster aggregate for the Wisconsin Republican primary on Tuesday. Cruz is still slightly ahead, but Trump is gaining ground. It could be a nailbiter.

Oh yeah, and the Democrats have a primary too. It's also neck and neck, with Bernie slightly ahead. Another nailbiter in America's Dairyland!

TSA Sets New Coding Standard: $47,000 Per Hour for iPad Apps

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 12:13 AM EDT

Sometime in the dim past, the TSA needed a way to randomly assign passengers to the pre-check boarding line. The solution was an iPad app that randomly points left or right when an agent taps the screen. This app, which Kevin Burke says "a beginner could build in a day," was coded by IBM and cost the taxpayers a cool $47,000.

That seems like a lot. But could it really be coded in a day? Or is that just snark? Well, in case you're curious, here's the program:

I left out a bit of routine housekeeping stuff, and I didn't bother writing the functions to display the arrows—which probably wouldn't be more than a few lines each. That said, Burke is being generous. It shouldn't take more than an hour or so to write.

I've never written an iPad app, but I would have learned from scratch if I knew I could make 47 large out of the deal. I would have expensed the Idiot's Guide to iPad Programming, though, so call it $47,039.95. The government sure is weird sometimes.

Is There an Untapped Market for Democratic Anger?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 7:06 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias draws my attention to a paper written after the 2014 elections that looks at the number of ideologically based primary challenges in House elections since 1970. It turns out that there have always been plenty of primary challenges, but most of them are mundane affairs based on local issues. Until recently, very few have been about insufficient liberal or conservative purity. Here's the nut of it:

The majority of congressional primary challenges are motivated by idiosyncratic failings of the incumbent — factors such as scandals, the incumbent’s age, or the incumbent’s alleged incompetence. Ideological challenges...constitute an average of just under 14 percent of primary challenges.

....The number of ideological challenges, however, has increased steadily over the past five election cycles, and was at an historic high in 2014. This is entirely due to challenges within the Republican Party; not a single Democratic primary challenger based his or her campaign on the claim that the incumbent was insufficiently liberal....This is noteworthy not only for what it says about conflict within the Republican Party, but for what it says about the lack of conflict among Democrats.

Even in the post-Watergate elections, Democrats never mounted more than a handful of ideological primary challenges. The Gingrich revolution in the mid-90s was similar on the Republican side. It's only starting in 2010—the Obama era—that ideological primary challenges suddenly skyrocketed in the Republican Party.

Yglesias writes that "the Bernie Sanders campaign appears to suggest the existence of substantial untapped demand for left-wing ideological primary challenges in the Democratic Party." Maybe. More likely, given the 40-year history of neither party mounting many ideological primary challenges, something very unusual happened among conservatives in 2010. As much as they hated Bill Clinton, he never prompted a tidal wave of right-wing challenges to Republican incumbents. But something about Obama was different. Suddenly an awful lot of Republicans decided that their party needed to get a lot more conservative.

What was it about Obama that was so different? I think we can all take a guess. But whatever the answer, I've seen no indication of anything similar happening among Democrats. And Bernie's millennial supporters, as usual, show very little interest in any election less important than the presidency. So my money is on Democrats never having more than a few ideological challenges per election cycle. Bernie is Bernie, not a harbinger of deep discontent among liberals.

But I can be proven wrong pretty easily. All it takes is a dozen or two primary challenges. Let's see 'em.

Hillary Clinton Wrecks Pro-Choice Movement

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 2:10 PM EDT

Apparently Hillary Clinton has single-handedly dealt the pro-choice movement a death blow:

Asked on Meet the Press by Chuck Todd whether “an unborn child ha[s] constitutional rights,” Clinton admitted that under current law, “the unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.”

The pro-choice movement takes extreme care to avoid calling an unborn child a person — preferring the term “fetus” in order to preserve the argument that abortion involves the well-being of only one person, not two....Words matter deeply to the security of an increasingly weakening pro-choice movement. The cracks in their armor have become more clear with scientific advances and the ability to lower the age of infant viability, so when a powerful voice for their cause accidentally reveals the truth — they take a hit.

....Hillary Clinton will never admit that these unborn babies deserve any rights, but she will now have to live with the fact she’s admitted that killing a “person” should be perfectly legal.

I guess that's that. Thanks a lot, Hillary. Now we'll have to come up with some entirely new subterfuge to justify our baffling hatred of blastocysts, embryos, and fetuses.

Sigh. Do these folks really think that stuff like this blows the lid off the pro-choice movement? Seriously?

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Weekly Flint Water Report: March 26 - April 1

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 1:15 PM EDT

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 754 samples. The average for the past week was 15.84.

Everyone Is Freaking Out About the Panama Papers—But the Biggest Fallout Is Yet to Come

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 12:25 PM EDT

This is from a memo by one of the partners of Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based outfit that specializes in setting up offshore accounts and shell corporations:

Ninety-five per cent of our work coincidentally consists in selling vehicles to avoid taxes.

I suppose that's not much of a shocker, is it? Still, it's nice to hear it from the horse's mouth, along with all the usual defensive whinging about how it's not inherently illegal to set up offshore accounts and many people have totally legitimate reasons for doing so.

This admission comes from the "Panama Papers," a massive leak of documents from Mossack Fonseca. According to the Guardian, "the records were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ then shared them with a large network of international partners, including the Guardian and the BBC."

So what have we found out so far? Well, it turns out that Vladimir Putin and his friends seem to have socked away about $2 billion in offshore accounts. You're shocked, aren't you? Also the president of Ukraine. And relatives of the leaders of China, Pakistan, and Argentina. And the prime minister of Iceland.

Iceland? That's...unexpected. For the most part, what this leak has told us is that corrupt leaders of corrupt countries are quite likely involved in corruption. But Iceland isn't anybody's first choice for a corrupt state. Still, it's worth remembering that Iceland was ground zero for the European banking crisis, so they have quite a spectacular recent history of dodgy financial practices. Plus it turns out the Icelandic prime minister has a really rich wife.

And McClatchy, the only US news organization with access to the papers, points even more fingers:

Those exposed in the leak include the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, an alleged bagman for Syrian President Bashar Assad, a close pal of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and companies linked to the family of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Add to those the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, enough Middle Eastern royalty to fill a palace, honchos in the troubled body known as FIFA that controls international soccer and 29 billionaires featured in Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s 500 richest people.

Everyone is now making vague noises about offshore tax havens and how they should be shut down, or regulated, or something. But the plain truth is that no one really wants to do it. Britain, obviously, could shut down the ones under their control pretty easily, but they never have. The United States could effectively shut them all down by refusing to allow offshore shell companies in designated tax havens access to US banks. But we haven't done that either. Too many rich people like things just the way they are.

In any case, you might find this whole thing a bit boring because it implicates only a bunch of foreigners, mainly in countries already well known for their casual relationship with bribery and corruption. What about the United States? Well, there's this, from the book Global Shell Games:

Maybe Mossack Fonseca just isn't the favored servicer of American corporations and zillionaires. But surely they have some American customers? Yes indeed:

So stay tuned. Maybe Hillary Clinton has millions of dollars stashed away in the Isle of Man!

"One Person, One Vote" Wins Surprising Supreme Court Victory

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 11:02 AM EDT

The most recent attempt to increase the voting weight of Republicans was very creative. A couple of Texas residents claimed that instead of counting the entire population when states perform redistricting, they should count only the voting-age population. Or maybe only registered voters. Or maybe some other method that grossly favors Republicans.

This case got decided today, and since the court now has only eight members, it ended up in a 4-4 tie, which is a relief for…

No, wait. The Texans lost unanimously, 8-0. That's unexpected. And to add to the bizarreness, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's opinion, which was largely based on an originalist view of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment:

What constitutional history and our prior decisions strongly suggest, settled practice confirms. Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 States and countless local local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries.

I guess miracles can happen after all. I don't know what the next clever assault on the voting rights of Democrats will be, but this case suggests that maybe the Supreme Court has been pushed as far as it's willing to go down this road. New strategy, please.

Single-Issue Immigration Voters Should Support Anyone Except Donald Trump

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 1:00 AM EDT

An awful lot of immigration die-hards seem to think that Donald Trump is the one guy they can trust not to go all squishy on them if he wins the election. He's going to build that wall, dammit! But they might want to rethink that faith in Trump after reading Gabe Sherman's piece in New York magazine this week:

His team at the time consisted of three advisers: Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, and Sam Nunberg....Throughout 2014, the three fed Trump strategy memos and political intelligence. “I listened to thousands of hours of talk radio, and he was getting reports from me,” Nunberg recalled. What those reports said was that the GOP base was frothing over a handful of issues including immigration, Obamacare, and Common Core.

....Which is how Trump’s scorched-earth strategy coalesced. To break out of the pack, he made what appears to be a deliberate decision to be provocative, even outrageous.

Six months later, Lewandowski and Hicks worked into the early hours of the morning prepping for Trump’s campaign announcement in the lobby of Trump Tower....“Nobody said anything,” Trump said about the fact that he had accused Mexico of sending “rapists” over the border into the U.S....He hadn’t tested the line, but Nunberg’s deep dive into talk radio had shown him that this was the sort of thing that would resonate with a certain segment of the Republican base.

Sure, Trump doesn't employ any pollsters or focus testers. But this sure makes it sound like his thunderous anti-immigrant position is a wee bit less than heartfelt. Maybe even cynically contrived.

It's a funny thing. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the politics of immigration, but if you asked me for a quick read I'd say that any president who tried to push a comprehensive reform plan would meet with the same fate as George Bush in 2007 and Barack Obama in 2013: even if their plan got anywhere in the first place, the Republican base would rebel and kill it. So if you're a single-issue immigration voter, you can back pretty much anyone. None of them could succeed at passing a plan, and most (all?) of them wouldn't even bother trying.

Except for one person: Donald Trump. Because the only way that any kind of comprehensive reform could pass is if it's backed by someone with such a strong, almost cultish following that he can convince the GOP base he's cut a uniquely good deal. Ted Cruz can't do it. John Kasich can't do it. Marco Rubio—who had loads of tea party cred at the time—tried to sway the faithful in 2013, but he couldn't do it either.

Only Trump could do it. And since he's badly deluded about his personal negotiating skills, he probably would do it—and he'd be convinced that he really had cut the toughest deal ever on illegal immigration. All the while, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would be snickering behind his back.

Now, it might not happen anyway. Maybe Jeff Sessions would manage to kill it. Or keep Trump from doing the deal in the first place. But that's a risk you don't have with any other candidate. Far from being the best candidate of the anti-immigrant faction, I'd say Trump is the worst. He's the only one who has any plausible chance at all of getting something passed.