Finally, Some Actual Bad News About Obamacare

As you know, the overall news about Obamacare is almost uniformly positive. Uninsurance rates are down, costs are under control, subsidies are working, etc. But that doesn't mean everything is perfect. Kaiser's latest survey, for example, highlights growing dissatisfaction with Obamacare coverage:

The number of people who are dissatisfied has gone up from 20 percent in 2014 to 31 percent this year. The main complaint is about premiums and deductibles. As it happens, premiums haven't actually increased all that much, but deductibles have, which means that even modest premium increases strike people as unfair.

As usual, I'd be cautious about drawing any conclusions from this. It's only a year or two of data, and the Obamacare market is still shaking out. Still, it's genuinely unfavorable news—except for conservatives, who finally have something bad they can point to without actually lying about it.

For more details, see Andrew Sprung.

Elizabeth Warren gave a speech today that was focused on what sorts of workplace protections we should adopt in response to the rise of "1099 workers" (freelancers) and on-demand "gig economy" workers (Uber drivers). Before I get to that, though, a quick note: it's not clear to me that there's actually been much of a rise in gig workers, as you can see in the chart on the right. The percentage of full-time workers normally decreases during recessions and increases during recoveries, which is exactly what's happening right now. We're still about a percentage point away from our pre-recession average, but we'll probably make that up within a couple of years.

Still, we might not get there. What's more, whether the number of part-timers is increasing or not, they deserve access to standard employment benefits. Warren names a few, and suggests that both health care and retirement benefits should be portable: they need to belong to employees, not to employers, and should stick with them regardless of who they're working for. I was especially interested in her remarks on retirement benefits:

One change would make a big difference: a high-quality retirement plan for independent contractors, self-employed workers, and other workers who have no access to retirement benefits to supplement their Social Security.

This plan should use best-in-class practices when it comes to asset allocation, governance structure, and fee transparency. It should be operated solely in the interest of workers and retirees, and they should have a voice in how the plan is run. Instead of an employer-sponsored 401(k), this plan could be run by a union or other organization that could contract investment management to the private sector—just as companies like General Motors contract with providers like Fidelity to offer 401(k)s in the employment setting. And, because of the amazing advances in online investment platforms and electronic payroll systems, individuals could set up automatic contributions. It’s time for all workers to have access to the same low-cost, well-protected retirement products that some employers and unions provide today.

Defined-contribution programs like 401(k)s tend to get demonized by liberals, but they shouldn't be. As Warren says, if you want a pension plan to supplement Social Security, it needs to be portable. Old-style pensions tended to lock people into jobs because they took a long time to vest and the vesting was backloaded. If you switched jobs every five or ten years, they likely provided you with a pretty paltry retirement income. By contrast, 401(k)s start building as soon as you start contributing, and continue building regardless of how often you change jobs. And while it's true that the Great Recession wasn't kind to 401(k) plans, they've mostly recovered since their losses in 2009-10.

Still, they're far from perfect. One problem, as Warren notes, is that employees don't always have good options about how to invest their 401(k) contributions—though that's slowly getting better thanks to changes in the law passed a decade ago. Another problem is that too few people sign up for their 401(k) plans, and that's improving too thanks to the legalization of "nudge" style opt-out plans. This has especially benefited low-income workers, who need retirement help the most.

But we can still do better. We can set up better programs for freelancers, and we can mandate the best-in-class investment practices that Warren mentions: automatic increases in contribution amounts as workers age, as well as low-fee lifecycle funds that become less risky as retirement approaches. This should be done universally, not just for freelancers. These are modest proposals, but they'd go a long way toward making modern pension plans truly safe, reliable, and universal.

Weekly Flint Water Report: May 7-12

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 220 samples. The average for the past week was 14.46.

Jonathan Chait takes aim today at a common conservative story about the rise of the tea party during the Obama era:

That story is that President Obama’s domestic agenda violated the Constitution — perhaps not the actual written text of the Constitution, because then the Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court could have stopped him, but certainly the broader spirit of the Constitution, which is about preventing liberals from passing big laws conservatives hate. They were animated by the spirit of what they called “Constitutional conservatism.” This was a new movement that connected abstract beliefs about limited government with the vision of the Founders. Writers like Charles Krauthammer lauded “a popular reaction, identified with the Tea Party but in reality far more widespread, calling for a more restrictive vision of government more consistent with the Founders' intent.”

I'm not sure if Chait himself is calling this movement new or if he's attributing this belief to conservatives themselves. The latter, I assume. Either way, though, it bugs me enough to comment on it. Here's the thing: there's precisely nothing new about this. It happens—literally—every time a Democrat is president. I wrote about this six years ago, shortly after the birth of the tea party:

When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn.

There are, of course, differences between each of these movements....But these differences are superficial. The similarities are far more telling, and the place they start is a shared preoccupation with the Constitution. The Liberty Leaguers, as Rudolph wrote, spoke of it with "worshipful intensity." The John Birch Society—which is enjoying a renaissance of sorts today—says of itself, "From its earliest days the John Birch Society has emphasized the importance of the Constitution for securing our freedom." And as Stephanie Mencimer reported in our May/June issue, study groups dedicated to the Constitution have mushroomed among tea partiers.

....Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

Among the GOP base, as Chait points out, conservative devotion to a distinctive reading of the Constitution is little more than a convenient, pseudo-intellectual justification for the stuff they really care about: cutting "big government" programs that spend tax dollars on people they don't like. Among GOP elites, it serves the same purpose—though they try to be more careful about letting this slip.

In any case, it's nothing new. According to conservatives, every liberal program for at least the past century has been an assault on the Constitution. The only new thing Donald Trump has brought to this has been to shuck off the Constitution stuff and just appeal straight to the core of what actually animates the conservative base. And the conservative base loves it. Why shouldn't they? The Constitution was never more than a handy shibboleth to them anyway.

As required by law, the US International Trade Commission has completed its analysis of the Trans Pacific Partnership. They used a dynamic computable general equilibrium model for their analysis, which concluded that the economic impact of the TPP would be...pretty close to zero. The chart on the right is my feeble attempt to add some color to this, and you can see that no part of the economy is affected by so much as 1 percent. Or half a percent. It's more in the neighborhood of a quarter of a percent three decades from now.

Generally speaking, I'd say this means you should mostly ignore the economic aspects of TPP. The benefits will be minuscule and the damages will be minuscule. The error bars on a 30-year forecast are just too big to say anything more. Instead, you should focus on other aspects of the agreement. How will it affect poor countries in Asia? Is it a useful bulwark against the growing influence of China? What do you think of extending US patent and trademark rules throughout the world? All of those things are real. The economic impact is basically a crapshoot.

Bernie's Core Support Comes From Young Voters

I guess I stopped paying attention or something, but I didn't realize there was ever any real debate about the core of Bernie Sanders' support. However, Jeff Stein reports that recently lots of people have decided he's being powered by votes from the white working class:

This trope has become the conventional wisdom in the media, with the Wall Street Journal, the Nation, The Huffington Post, and a host of other outlets (including me at Vox) stating as fact that downscale whites have formed a crucial piece of Sanders's base.

Stein digs a little deeper and comes up with this:

If Sanders's "white working-class" voters aren't just college students, you'd also expect him to be doing better among downscale middle-aged white voters than rich ones. But this turned out not to be true: Low-income white people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s did not break for Sanders.

...."My main concern is that the image of Bernie-supporting older poor people who've lost their factory jobs to trade is not supported," Grossmann says. "I'm least supportive of the idea that there's a population of white, older workers who lost their jobs and are now supporting Sanders. There's very little evidence of that."

Similarly, Abramowitz ran a multivariate analysis to help figure out this question. Abramowitz looked at a large survey data set and asked: What forms of identity actually predict support for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton? "It was age, and beyond that nothing mattered. Maybe ideology mattered a little bit," he said. Income was not a factor.

If you ask ten social scientists for a definition of "working class," you'll get eleven different answers. Still, by any definition Sanders just doesn't seem to be winning it. The white working class is voting for him in normal numbers and the non-white working class is supporting Hillary Clinton.

Having missed this peculiar turn of the conventional wisdom, I can now continue believing what the data has always suggested: Bernie's main core of support is young voters, especially young white voters. Income doesn't matter all that much, and neither does education. Young people of all stripes like him, and young people of all stripes really don't like Hillary. Among white voters, the Democratic primary is basically a generational war, and that's it.

The Washington Post has a long piece tonight about Donald Trump's latest FEC filing, which shows that business has boomed during his presidential campaign. It's a little hard to make sense of, but apparently Trump claims that revenue from his various businesses rose from $362 million to $557 million. However, about $150 million of that came from one-off sales, so it's unclear how much his campaign has really boosted things.

You can decide for yourself how seriously to take this, but here's the most important part of the story:

While Trump’s campaign issued a statement referring to the form as a tally of his personal “income,” it is actually a list of his companies’ gross revenue — a figure that does not factor in the costs of paying employees and running the companies. In addition, the FEC form does not account for debt interest payments, a potentially significant expenditure for Trump, who lists five loans of over $50 million each.

In other words, this is all pretty meaningless, since we have no idea how well run Trump's company is. Generally speaking, though, a large corporation is doing well if it records pretax earnings of around 10 percent. For a company like Trump's, maybe the average is more like 15-20 percent. Then again, it could be lower if his debt service is high. Who knows?

That said, a rough guess puts Trump's income last year somewhere in the range of $40-$100 million. Not bad.

The Great Trump Peace Tour Is Beginning

From Bloomberg:

Donald Trump is looking to break down the political wall between him and a segment of Hispanic voters: Latino evangelicals who tend to vote Republican. Trump aides have told the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will submit videotaped remarks to be played at their annual conference this weekend in California.

....“It would be the first time that I’m aware of that he’s addressing, even though it’s a videotaped message, a Latino organization,” said Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “That’s encouraging, honestly."

Encouraging! Maybe so—for Trump, anyway. One of the things he seems to have learned in his career is that it's usually not too hard to kiss and make up. You can treat people as harshly as you want, but once the fight is over all you have to do is announce publicly that these are really great guys and you have nothing but respect for them. It's life as a football game.

Will it work in a presidential campaign? Can Trump make up with women, blacks, gays, Hispanics, and the disabled? It's possible. People have short memories, and they're suckers for praise. If he's smart enough to rein in the insults and shower conservative-leaning groups with praise, there's no telling how far he can go.

Where's the Idealism?

It's a funny thing: the usual take on Bernie Sanders supporters is that they're a bunch of idealistic college kids who want a revolution. But whenever I write a post critical of Bernie, I sure don't seem to get much criticism from the smart set. Here's a random baker's dozen tweets responding to my post from last night:

I know you can't draw any conclusions from the cesspool of social media. And I'm not a woman, so I escape the worst of this stuff. Still, this is the kind of barely literate nitwittery that I get from the tea party types when I write about Benghazi or the IRS. Full of passion, for sure, but not a whole lot of idealism. Just rage and lame middle-school insults.

Would I get the same quality of stuff from Hillary supporters if I wrote something negative about her? In the past I haven't, but my criticisms of Hillary have been more targeted. Plus she's winning, and that makes it a lot easier to let criticism wash off your back.

I dunno. I suppose the lesson is not to draw any lessons from Twitter (though my inbox looked pretty similar this morning). But I'll draw a lesson anyway: We're no angrier than we've ever been, but social media sure does make it a lot easier to express our rage publicly. In the past all we could do was yell at the TV in the privacy of our own living rooms. All things considered, this probably isn't such a positive change.

Over at The Corner, here is conservative #NeverTrumper Jim Geraghty:

One of the most common, and least-easily-ignored questions from Trump fans to #NeverTrump conservatives was, “But what about judges? Don’t you care about the Supreme Court?” Hillary Clinton’s judicial nominees would be awful, but there was little guarantee that Trump, who clearly doesn’t spend much time thinking about judicial philosophy, strict constructionism, or the role of the courts in setting policy, would consistently pick better judges.

I totally get why conservatives don't trust Trump to be a true conservative, but if there's one area where I figured Trump was trustworthy, this was it. Why? Because he obviously knows nothing about this stuff and cares even less. He would just ask the Federalist Society for a list and pick someone from it. Really, conservatives had nothing to worry about on this score.

And sure enough, that's how it played out. Trump released a list of eleven "potential" replacements for Anton Scalia this morning, and Geraghty is pleased: "At first glance, these are all names that conservatives would want to see and no names they wouldn't want to see." And that's not all. John Yoo is happy too:

[Trump] may be starting to unify the party with the right moves — if his list of potential appointments to the Supreme Court is any sign. Everyone on the list is an outstanding legal conservative. All are young, smart, and committed....These names are a Federalist Society all-star list of conservative jurisprudence....Trump clearly turned to the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation for advice.

Dan McLaughlin agrees:

The list is mostly cribbed from a prior Heritage Foundation list and from names fed to Trump by Hugh Hewitt in a radio interview, and is heavy on state supreme court judges. It obviously is not the product of much due diligence, as it includes Twitter-savvy Texas supreme court justice Don Willett, who has repeatedly and hilariously mocked Trump on Twitter for months.

Ilya Shapiro calls it "Donald Trump's terrific list of fabulous judges." Paul Mirengoff says the list is "impressive....Trump is talking to the right conservatives when it comes to the Supreme Court. Fellow Power Liner John Hinderaker is also on board: "My sense is that the party is coalescing behind Donald Trump. No doubt this list of excellent judges will accelerate that process."

So there you have it. Trump pretty obviously fobbed off this list to a couple of think tanks and released whatever names they told him to. He was too busy lying about past interviews and tweeting new insults to worry about trivia like this.