Kevin Drum

Taking Advantage of Cancer Patients for Fun and Profit

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 8:43 AM PDT

When we last met cancer patient Julie Boonstra, she was the centerpiece of a TV ad claiming that her new insurance plan under Obamacare was far more expensive than her old plan and didn't cover all her medications. On examination, it turned out to cost about the same. Today, however, the Detroit News reports that, in fact, Obamacare will save Boonstra more than a thousand dollars per year:

Boonstra said Monday her new plan she dislikes is the Blue Cross Premier Gold health care plan, which caps patient responsibility for out-of-pocket costs at $5,100 a year, lower than the federal law’s maximum of $6,350 a year. It means the new plan will save her at least $1,200 compared with her former insurance plan she preferred that was ended under Obamacare’s coverage requirements.

....When advised of the details of her Blues’ plan, Boonstra said the idea that it would be cheaper “can’t be true.”

“I personally do not believe that,” Boonstra said.

....She also said her out-of-pocket maximum could be higher than advertised because there’s one prescription that was previously covered by her old plan that isn’t and she now buys with a separate prescription discount card....Boonstra’s health plan covers all prescriptions, [Blue Cross spokesman Andy] Hetzel said, who advises she use the coverage instead of a prescription discount card so co-pays would go toward meeting the out-of-pocket maximum.

If you think I'm posting about this just because it's a big, fat poke in the face to the Koch-funded ambulance chasers at AFP who originally ran the Boonstra ad—well, you're right. But there's a real point to be made about this too. I don't know anything about Julie Boonstra, but it sure seems as if she's been bamboozled by a bunch of fanatic Obamacare haters who have caused her a ton of pain and misery. Boonstra had some genuine problems with the rollout of the exchanges, just as many people did, but once that finally got straightened out, she ended up with coverage that was both better and less expensive than her previous plan. There's no reason for her to be so anxious about her continued care.

But she never really learned that. For purely venal political reasons, AFP found itself a woman fighting cancer and proceeded to stoke her fears of her new health coverage in order to get a TV ad made. A TV ad. These are people who, if there's any justice, should not be sleeping easily at night. They are swine.

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Dianne Feinstein Upset that CIA Is Spying on Dianne Feinstein

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 7:52 AM PDT

If the CIA has lost Dianne Feinstein....

The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday sharply accused the CIA of violating federal law and undermining the constitutional principle of congressional oversight as she detailed publicly for the first time how the agency secretly removed documents from computers used by her panel to investigate a controversial interrogation program.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the situation amounted to attempted intimidation of congressional investigators, adding: “I am not taking it lightly.”

In the end, I suspect that she will indeed take it lightly. Still, if there's one thing an intelligence agency shouldn't do, it's get caught monitoring the Senate committee that oversees it. The intelligence community can spy on millions of Americans and Dianne Feinstein yawns. But spy on Dianne Feinstein and you're in trouble.

Short-Term Unemployment Is In Pretty Good Shape. Long-Term Unemployment Continues To Be a Catastrophe.

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 9:42 PM PDT

Via Zachary Goldfarb, here's a chart from the 2014 Economic Report of the President. It shows unemployment rates of various durations, and I've redrawn it a bit to scale everything to 100 in 2007. That gives you a clearer idea of what's going on. As you can see, short-term unemployment levels are nearly back to their 2007 levels and continuing to drop. Long-term unemployment, by contrast, is still three times its 2007 level.

For all practical purposes, long-term unemployment is now practically our entire unemployment problem.

No, University Students Should Not Be Forced to Have Facebook Accounts

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 4:35 PM PDT

Thoreau attended a teaching conference this weekend. The keynote speaker had some things to say about communicating with the kids these days:

One small observation: The guy was insisting that we need to move all of our digital communication with students away from email and course management systems (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and instead communicate with students entirely via Facebook, posting assignment links there.  I shall refrain from speculating on what sorts of stocks are in his retirement portfolio.  Instead, I will note that while he was standing up there saying “Look, I’m old, you’re old, we’re all old, so we need to get with the times or become obsolete, now move your class to Facebook already!”, the Kids These Days are actually becoming less interested in Facebook.  You could say that he proved his own point about faculty being old and out of touch, except he’s an administrator in his day job.  So he actually proved that administrators are out of touch.

I am completely out of touch with both kids and universities, plus I'm an old fogey. And if you really want to know the truth, I'm not sure why university professors need to communicate with their students digitally at all. Don't they still meet a couple of times a week in meatspace, like we used to when I was a lad? Can't assignments and office hours and so forth be sufficiently communicated during class time?

But fine. I get it. We all communicate digitally these days, so university professors need to do it too. But you know what? University students actually do know how to use email. Sure, they might consider it something that's mainly used for sending messages to grandma and grandpa, but they all know how to use it. And it has the virtue of being universal, extremely flexible, and supporting embedded links to any old thing you want. Students who plan to find jobs after graduation should probably know how to use it.

But my real point is this: If I were a student, I'd be pissed if I were actually forced to get a Facebook account in order to communicate with a professor. Maybe I don't like or trust Facebook. And what if my other professors all have different favored ways of communicating? Am I forced to get a Tumblr account and a Pinterest account and a Google+ account and a Twitter account? That would be annoying as hell. Why should any of those things be required merely to be a student? Email is free, easy to use, and isn't a vehicle for creating more Silicon Valley zillionaires. Any student who can't be bothered to use it has way bigger problems than having to endure a slightly fogeyish professor.

Europeans Unhappy Over High American Capital Standards

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 12:20 PM PDT

The Fed has adopted rules that require foreign banks operating in the US to maintain the same capital standards as US banks. German bankers are unhappy about this:

In comments prepared for a speech in Berlin Monday, Andreas Dombret said that recent U.S. regulatory initiatives, "such as the enhanced standards for bank holding companies and foreign banking organizations, worry me. They seem to contradict the need for international cooperation."

....The Fed recently approved new rules that force the largest international banks operating in America to establish U.S.-based "intermediate holding companies," which will be subject to the same capital and liquidity requirements as domestic banks....European bankers have sharply criticized the move. "This is a considerable competitive handicap for European banks, as their U.S. competitors aren't subject to any equivalent requirements in the EU," said Michael Kemmer, head of the Association of German Banks last month.

Well, in that case, I recommend that the EU raise its capital standards and then subject American banks to it. Instead, last month they decided to ease leverage standards. I guess they've already forgotten what things looked like back in 2010. In case you have too, the chart on the right tells the story.

Chart of the Day: The Ranks of the Uninsured Are Dropping

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 10:21 AM PDT

Last year Gallup reported that the number of uninsured had dropped during the final quarter of 2013. That was good news, but might have been a statistical fluke. Today, via Greg Sargent, Gallup reports that the ranks of the uninsured have now dropped substantially for two quarters in a row:

The CBO estimates that the number of uninsured will drop by 4-5 percentage points in 2014 thanks to Obamacare. If you use 2011-12 as an approximate baseline, Gallup reports a drop of about 1.5 percentage points through February. These numbers probably aren't precisely comparable, but they represent a ballpark—and it doesn't look like a statistical fluke anymore. We're making progress.

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Democrats Have Done Virtually Nothing for the Middle Class in 30 Years

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 9:30 AM PDT

Sean McElwee urges Democrats to find a new way to appeal to the working class:

For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests....Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country....Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this strategy. It needs to fundamentally re-align Americans around an issue with a deep and latent importance: the environment.

I don't really want to pick on McElwee here, but I guess I'm feeling a little peevish this morning. Why is it that the working class often votes against its own economic interests? Well, let's compare the sales pitches of the Republican and Democratic parties when it comes to pocketbook issues:

  • Republicans: We will lower your taxes.
  • Democrats: We, um, support policies that encourage a fairer distribution of growth and....and....working of

There are two problems with the Democratic approach. First, it's too abstract to appeal to anyone. Second, it's not true anyway. Democrats simply don't consistently support concrete policies that help the broad working and middle classes. Half of them voted for the bankruptcy bill of 2005. They've done virtually nothing to stem the growth of monopolies and next to nothing to improve consumer protection in visible ways. They don't do anything for labor. They're soft on protecting Social Security. They bailed out the banks but refused to bail out underwater homeowners. Hell, they can't even agree to kill the carried interest loophole, a populist favorite if ever there was one.

Sure, Democrats do plenty for the poor. They support increases in the EITC and the minimum wage. They support Medicaid expansion. They passed Obamacare. They support pre-K for vulnerable populations. They expanded CHIP. But virtually none of this really benefits the working or middle classes except at the margins.

Now McElwee wants to use environmentalism to appeal to the working class. I'm all for that. But you don't have to play 11-dimensional chess to figure out how Republicans will respond. They'll say that Democrats want to raise your taxes. They'll say Democrats want to take away your plastic bags. They'll say Democrats want to make us all drive tiny cars or take the train everywhere. In coal country they'll say Democrats want to take away your jobs.

And then Democrats will wonder yet again why a big chunk of the working class votes for Republicans. It's a stumper all right.

Apologies for being peevish. But honestly, Democrats have done virtually nothing for the middle class for three decades now. They're nearly as reliant on the business community for campaign funding as Republicans. Can we all stop pretending that there's some deep mystery about why lots of working and middle class voters figure there are no real economic differences between the parties, so they might as well vote on social issues instead?

It's About Time to Start Giving CPAC the Media Coverage It Deserves

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 8:22 AM PDT

CPAC, that great annual gathering of conservative red meat and can-you-top-this condemnation of President Obama, came to an end Saturday (with a petulant, syntax-challenged stemwinder from Sarah Palin, natch). In passing, Lexington mentions something that's long puzzled me:

It is traditional for journalists to be a bit sniffy about CPAC straw polls, and with reason…CPAC attracts a very specific slice of the conservative movement, and its straw polls have a woeful record of predicting actual presidential nominees. Half the voters in this year’s effort were aged between 18 and 25, and two-thirds were male. Many seemed keen on Mr Paul’s brand of libertarianism, with its government-shrinking, pot-legalising, tax-cutting, privacy-obsessed, pull-up-the-drawbridge isolationism.

…Yet those who dismiss CPAC as a youth club for Ayn Rand (and Star Wars) fans risk overlooking the importance of the speeches here. Though the speakers pander to the crowd, they know that their words are whizzing around blogs, Twitter, talk radio and cable news TV. As a result, the senators and governors with presidential ambitions often give voice to what they believe their voters want to hear.

My puzzlement has always been just the opposite: The national political press mostly doesn't dismiss CPAC as an inconsequential libertarian love-fest. They love covering CPAC. But why? Every year, CPAC demonstrates its own irrelevance by overwhelmingly supporting Rand Paul or Ron Paul or some other eccentric conservative type in its final-day straw poll. It's solid proof that the attendees at CPAC represent a small and only slightly influential wing of the conservative movement.

And yet, the mere fact that CPAC reliably delivers the crazy seems to guarantee them plenty of coverage. I confess that I don't really get it. The average CPAC attendee wants to legalize drugs, cut the military, and rein in the NSA. The conservative movement writ large supports exactly the opposite: it wants to put the stoners in jail, give Vladimir Putin what for, and send the NSA a thank you card for protecting us from terrorists.

So why all the media love for CPAC? What's the deal?

Let's Please Put the Myth of the Iron-Willed Putin to Rest Once and For All

| Sun Mar. 9, 2014 10:16 AM PDT

Here is Doyle McManus today:

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, one of his selling points was the promise of a more modest foreign policy than that of his predecessor. And when Obama won reelection 16 months ago, he renewed that pledge....Mitt Romney warned at the time that Obama wasn't being tough enough on Vladimir Putin, but the president scoffed at the idea that Russia was a serious geopolitical threat.

It's not quite fair to accuse Obama of direct responsibility for Putin's occupation of Crimea, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other hawkish critics have. After all, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, when George W. Bush was president, and no one accused Bush of excessive diffidence in defending American interests.

But it's still worth asking: Has Obama's downsizing of U.S. foreign policy gone too far?

This stuff is driving me crazy. Later in the piece, McManus mentions Obama's Middle East policy, and I suppose that's fair game: Obama really has downsized our military footprint there. Personally, I'm just fine with a president who conducts foreign policy in the interests of the United States, regardless of whether Israel and Saudi Arabia approve, but I suppose your mileage may vary. Feel free to argue about it.

But it's nuts to talk about Ukraine the same way. Putin didn't invade Crimea because the decadent West was aimlessly sunning itself on a warm beach somewhere. He invaded Crimea because America and the EU had been vigorously promoting their interests in a country with deep historical ties to Russia. He invaded because his hand-picked Ukrainian prime minister was losing, and the West was winning. He invaded because he felt that he had been outplayed by an aggressive geopolitical opponent and had run out of other options.

None of this justifies Putin's actions. But to suggest that he was motivated by weakness in US foreign policy is flatly crazy. He was motivated by fear; by shock over the speed of events in Kiev; by a sense of betrayal when the February 21 agreement collapsed; by nationalistic fervor; by domestic political considerations; by provocative actions from the new Ukrainian parliament; by an increasing insularity among his inner circle; and by just plain panic.

The one thing he wasn't motivated by was US weakness. Can we at least get that much straight?

Obamacare Rate Shock Probably Affects Less Than 1 Percent of the Country

| Sat Mar. 8, 2014 3:11 PM PST

Like most human beings, I love it when I turn out to be right. Or even when someone provides evidence that I might be right. So naturally I'm thrilled that a pair of researchers have confirmed my horseback estimate that 1-2 million people may have suffered from canceled policies and rate shock during the introduction of Obamacare.

How did they go about it? Well, it's really hard to use raw number crunching to figure out how many people in the individual health care market had their policies canceled. Clean data just doesn't exist. But there's a way to cut through this Gordian Knot: just ask people. In December 2013, the Health Reform Monitoring Survey did just that, and concluded that about 18.6 percent of those with individual health insurance reported that their policies were no longer being offered to them. The best estimate we have is that about 14 million people had individual policies last year, which means that 2.6 million people faced cancellation:

Many whose non-group policy was cancelled appear to be eligible for Marketplace subsidies or Medicaid....While our sample size of those with non-group health insurance who report that their plan was cancelled due to ACA compliance is small (N=123), we estimate that over half of this population is likely to be eligible for coverage assistance, mostly through Marketplace subsidies. Consistent with these findings, other work by Urban Institute researchers estimated that slightly more than half of adults with pre-reform nongroup coverage would be eligible for Marketplace subsidies or Medicaid.

So that means about 1.3 million people had their policies canceled and had to pay full freight for a new policy. Since the error bars on this estimate are fairly large, that comes out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-2 million people. In other words, less than 1 percent of the country, mostly made up of people with incomes that are higher than average.

You can decide for yourself if this is a lot or a little. My own take is that it's pretty modest given that Obamacare probably benefits about 20-30 million people. Any big new piece of policy is going to have winners and losers, and a ratio of 20:1 or so is about as good as it gets in the real world.