Kevin Drum

Why Won't Orrin Hatch Blame Republicans For the Failure of Immigration Reform?

| Sun Nov. 16, 2014 10:28 AM EST

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch cracks me up:

[Hatch] expressed concern that President Barack Obama may soon take executive action on immigration and protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. "It would be catastrophic for him to do that," said Hatch. "Part of it is our fault. We haven't really seized this problem. Of course, we haven't been in a position to do it either, with Democrats controlling the Senate. I'm not blaming Republicans. But we really haven't seized that problem and found solutions for it."

...."Frankly, I'd like to see immigration done the right way," Hatch added. "This president is prone to doing through executive order that which he cannot do by working with the Congress, because he won't work with us. If he worked with us, I think we could get an immigration bill through ... He has a Republican Congress that's willing to work with him. That's the thing that's pretty interesting to me."

You know, it was only 17 months ago that the Senate passed a vigorously negotiated and tough-minded bipartisan immigration bill that was actively supported by President Obama. You know who voted for it? Orrin Hatch. The only reason it's not the law of the land today is....Republicans in the House. That's it.

So what's the problem here? Why shouldn't we blame Republicans?

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Two Important Notes For Anyone Renewing Obamacare Coverage

| Sat Nov. 15, 2014 12:17 PM EST

Today is the first day of the 2015 signup period for Obamacare. If you currently have coverage, you need to decide whether to keep the plan you have or shop around for a different one. Here are a couple of key things to keep in mind—whether you're buying coverage for yourself or know friends who are:

  • As the New York Times points out today, it's possible that the net price of your current coverage could go up substantially this year. Here's why: the size of the federal subsidy depends on the price of your plan relative to other plans. If your plan was the cheapest on offer last year, it qualified for a maximum subsidy. But if other, cheaper plans are offered this year, and your plan is now, say, only the fourth cheapest, you'll get a smaller subsidy. So even if your actual plan premium stays the same, your net cost could go up a lot.

    This is, naturally, becoming a partisan attack point, but don't ignore it just because the usual suspects are making hay with it. It's a real issue that anyone buying insurance on a state or federal exchange should be aware of.

    Bottom line: shop around. Don't just hit the renew button without checking things out.
  • Andrew Sprung has been writing tirelessly about something called Cost Sharing Reduction. It's not well known, but it could be important to you. Today, Sprung tells us that the new version of healthcare.gov has a pretty nice shoparound feature that allows you to enter some basic information and then provides a comparison of all plans in your area. I tried it myself, and sure enough, the "window shopping" feature works nicely and is easily accessible from the home page.

    However, it doesn't do a good job of steering you toward silver-level plans, which are the only ones eligible for Cost Sharing Reduction. For example, I shopped for a plan for a low-income family of three in Missouri, and the cost of the cheapest bronze plan was $0. The cost of the cheapest silver plan was $90 per month. That's an extra $1,000 per year, and a lot of low-income families will naturally gravitate toward the cheaper plan, especially since it's the first one they see.

    But the bronze plan has both a deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $12,600. The silver plan with CSR has a deductible of $2,000 and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,700. Unless you're literally rolling the dice that you're never going to see a doctor this year, you're almost certain to be better off with the silver plan, even though the up-front monthly premium is a little higher.

    Bottom line: shop around. The plan that looks cheapest often isn't, and for low-income buyers a silver plan is often your best bet. For more, here's the CSR page at healthcare.gov. And for even more, Sprung has details about shopping at the new site here and here.

I guess the bottom line is obvious by now: shop around. Even if you can navigate the website yourself, be careful. Not everything is obvious at first glance. And if you're not comfortable doing it by yourself, don't. Get help from an expert in your state. You have three months to sign up, so there's no rush.

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 November 2014

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 2:58 PM EST

As you may recall, last week I regaled you with the news that cats (allegedly) love circles. Put a circular object on the floor, and they'll flock to it. But is this true? On Saturday, my sister visited and we performed our experiment: she laid down a scarf on the floor in a circular shape and we waited. I insisted that we do nothing to influence the cats, since that would ruin all the lovely Science™, but we didn't have to wait long. Hilbert came over first, and then Hopper followed. For the next 15 minutes they went nuts for the circle. By the time I took the picture on the right, the scarf was no longer all that circular, but it didn't matter. They loved it.

So there you have it. Cats do love circles. The reason, however, remains a mystery, so let's move on to this week's official catblogging. I've already mentioned that I have a hard time keeping up with our little furballs unless they're snoozing, so this week you get a picture of them snoozing (Hopper on the left, Hilbert on the right). I sent this to the shelter where we got them, and they thought it was hilarious. Our guys are not the kind of cats who curl up when they sleep. They stretch out as far as they can to air out their tummies, even if that means they're often hanging over the edge of a chair. But the couch is better. Even they can only fill up half a couch.

People Who Use Obamacare Sure Do Like It

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 1:43 PM EST

Jonathan Cohn points us today to a Gallup poll with yet more good news for Obamacare. In a recent survey, the people who are actually using Obamacare gave it very high marks: 74 percent said the quality of health care they received was good or excellent, and 71 percent said the overall coverage was good or excellent. What's remarkable is that these numbers are nearly the same as those for everyone else with health insurance, which includes those with either employer coverage or Medicare. Here's the bottom line from Cohn:

You hear a lot about what’s wrong with the coverage available through the marketplaces and some of these criticisms are legitimate. The narrow networks of providers are confusing, for example, and lack of sufficient regulations leaves some patients unfairly on the hook for ridiculously high bills. But overall the plans turn out to be as popular as other forms of private and public insurance. It’s one more sign that, if you can just block out the negative headlines and political attacks, you’ll discover a program that is working.

Republicans can huff and puff all they want, but the evidence is clear: despite its rollout problems, Obamacare is a success. It's covering millions of people; its costs are in line with forecasts; and people who use it think highly of it. There's no such thing as a big, complex program that has no problems, and Obamacare has its share. But overall? It's a standup triple.

Wakey, Wakey! Your Life Is Wasting Away.

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 10:33 AM EST

Melissa Dahl points us to a Reddit conversation with Dan Ariely, a Duke professor who's an expert on time management:

Ariely: One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don't require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Q: What are those hours? I must know.

Ariely: Generally people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.

That's a hell of a thing, isn't it? If Ariely is right, then almost by definition most of us waste the best hours of our lives. After all, by the time we eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, and commute to work, we've probably blown away the first 60-90 minutes of the day. And then, as Ariely says, we waste the next half hour chatting or checking email or working at some other low-priority task.

But not me! Mostly for time zone reasons, my habit for a while has been to wake up and come straight to the computer. After I get caught up on the news and write my first post, I eat a quick breakfast. Then I come back and keep blogging. My first two hours are consumed almost entirely by work.

So does that mean that my first two or three posts of the day are generally my best ones? I've never thought so. In fact, they're usually fairly short items. Later, as I engage more fully with the news of the day and the reactions of other bloggers, I start to write more substantive stuff. That's how it's always seemed, anyway. But maybe I'm wrong. What says the hive mind?

In any case, I have a doctor's appointment this morning (chemo round 4, only 12 to go!), so I shall sadly be wasting my most productive hours. On the bright side, the medical staff will presumably be at its peak. That's not a bad tradeoff, I guess. See you on the other side.

A Wee Caution About the Success of the Renewable Energy Loan Program

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 1:48 AM EST

This dispatch from Bloomberg got a lot of attention yesterday:

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

I think the gist of this report is almost certainly correct. The faux outrage over Solyndra back in 2011 was entirely manufactured for partisan reasons, and there was never any real reason to think that Solyndra's bankruptcy represented a broader failure of the loan program. Quite the opposite. Any loan guarantee program is not only going to have failures, it's going to expect failures. Solyndra just happened to be one of them.

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately, saying in its press release that "The best perspective for assessing LPO’s financial performance is to look at the portfolio in its entirety." Maybe so. But before I declare success, I'd still like to see how well the 1705 program is doing on its own. That would be a fairer representation of how well things are going in the piece of this program that's truly dedicated to risky new renewable energy projects.

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Elizabeth Warren Gets a Promotion -- Or Does She?

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 4:51 PM EST

Elizabeth Warren is getting a promotion:

Seeking ideological and regional balance, a chastened Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) expanded his leadership team Thursday, including the addition of liberal icon Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to beat back internal critics.....Expanding the leadership table — Warren's position was created specifically for her — is a way to answer the critics who think that Reid's team became insulated in recent years, according to senior Democratic aides.

I'm curious: Am I the only person who thinks this is probably not a great move for Warren? She's now officially part of the Democratic leadership, which makes her implicitly responsible for party policy and implicitly loyal to the existing leadership. And what is she getting in return? Unless I'm missing something, a made-up leadership position with no actual authority.

Is this a good trade? I'm not so sure.

Democrats Take Careful Aim at Feet, Prepare Both Barrels For Firing

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 1:29 PM EST

Sen. Mary Landrieu has a tough runoff election next month, and energy policy is a big deal in Louisiana. So Senate Democrats are planning to help her out a bit by holding a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline. Paul Waldman calls this one right:

The current Democratic effort to help Mary Landrieu win her runoff election by scheduling a quick vote on the Keystone XL pipeline has to be one of the most politically idiotic moves in recent history. As I argued yesterday, not only is it guaranteed to fail in its goal of helping Landrieu, it gives Republicans a huge policy victory while getting nothing in return. Runoff elections have extremely low turnout, and the only way Landrieu stands a chance is if she can convince lots of Louisiana Democrats to go to the polls to save her. This kind of me-too policymaking—I'm just as pro-oil as Republicans are!—is about the last thing that'll pump up Democratic enthusiasm.

Keystone XL isn't really one of my hot buttons. I figure that all that oil is getting to market one way or another, and blocking the pipeline won't really make much difference. I know that's probably a little too fatalistic, but we all have issues that strike us that way. Keystone XL is one of mine.

That said, Waldman is right. There's simply zero chance that this is going to help Landrieu. There's not a person in Louisiana who doesn't know that she supports the oil industry and hates hates hates President Obama's energy policy. She's made that crystal clear, and everyone who's persuadable has already been persuaded. A Keystone XL vote just won't move the needle.

So Democrats would be giving something away and getting literally nothing in return. In fact, since this would outrage all the people who do care about Keystone XL, Democrats would probably be giving something away and losing support from key supporters at the same time. It's crazy.

These are the same guys who whine endlessly about President Obama's lousy negotiating skills. Someone just shoot me.

Can We Talk? Here's Why the White Working Class Hates Democrats

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 12:27 PM EST

Noam Scheiber takes on one of the lessons du jour that always crop up after a party gets shellacked at the polls: how do we appeal to demographic group X that voted so heavily against us? In this case, the party is the Democrats, and the demographic group is the infamous white working class, which voted Republican by a 30-point margin last week:

At first blush, the white working class would appear to pose a real dilemma. The set of issues on which the Democratic Party is most coherent these days is social progressivism....But while these issues unite college-educated voters and working-class minority voters, they’ve historically alienated the white working class.

....How to square this circle? Well, it turns out we don’t really have to, since the analysis is outdated. The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election.

....Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class....The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece....The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.

I'd like to offer a different interpretation. I don't have a bunch of poll data readily at hand to back this up, so it's possible I'm way off base. But I don't think so, and at the very least I welcome pushback since it might clarify some things that need clarifying.

Here it is: I agree that social liberalism isn't quite the deal killer it used to be. Scheiber and Teixeira are right about that. It's still an issue—especially gun control, which remains more potent than a lot of liberals like to acknowledge—but it's fading somewhat in areas like abortion and gay marriage. There are still plenty of Fox-watching members of the WWC who are as socially conservative as ever, but I think it's safe to say that at the margins social issues are becoming a little less divisive among the WWC than they have been over the past few decades.

But if that's the case, why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats' necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That's just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn't for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They're still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It's always someone else.

It's pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it's not. But it's there. And although it's bound up with plenty of other grievances—many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic1—at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else. Always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn't vote for Democrats either.

I hate to end this with the usual cliche that I don't know what to do about it, but I don't. Helping the poor is one of the great causes of liberalism, and we forfeit our souls if we give up on it. And yet, as a whole bunch of people have acknowledged lately, the Democratic Party simply doesn't do much for either the working or middle classes these days. Republicans, by contrast, offer both the concrete—tax cuts—and the emotional—an inchoate but still intense rage against a government that seems not to care about them.

So sure: full-throated economic populism? That might work, though everyone seems to have a different idea of what it means. But here's one thing it better mean: policies that are aimed at the working and middle classes and that actually appeal to them. That is, policies that are simple, concrete, and offer benefits which are clear and compelling.

This is going to require policy wonks to swallow hard. Remember Cash 4 Clunkers? Economically, that was probably a dumb program that accomplished little. But it didn't do any harm, and people sure loved it. Multiply that by a hundred and you're on the right track.

1The Democrats' problem with the white working class is far worse in the South than anywhere else. Nonetheless, I think we're kidding ourselves if we crunch a bunch of numbers and somehow conclude that it's not a problem elsewhere. It's not as big a problem, but in an electorate that continues to be balanced on a tightrope, five or ten percentage points among a sizeable group of people is still a pretty big problem.

Ebola Panic Mysteriously Disappeared Last Tuesday

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 10:49 AM EST

This is from the LA Times yesterday, but I forgot to mention it. It's worth a quick read:

A few short weeks ago, Ebola was public enemy No. 1.

About 1,000 people were being monitored by health officials. Several schools in Texas and Ohio shut down because of a single patient who boarded a plane. A cruise ship was refused permission to dock in Cozumel, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. President Obama appointed an Ebola "czar." Polls showed a majority of Americans were concerned that Ebola would spread out of control in the U.S.

On Tuesday, a fully recovered Dr. Craig Spencer was released from Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. The U.S. was now Ebola-free for the first time since Sept. 5 — a milestone that barely seemed to register with a once-frenzied public.

How did we get here from there?

How indeed?

"October was a rough month for stigma and fear," said Doug Henry, a medical anthropologist at the University of North Texas in Denton. "The cruise ship that was denied entry into a port, kids who weren't welcome at school, parents who kept their own kids home — things got really bad here in Dallas." To further complicate matters, the crisis occurred in the home stretch of the midterm election campaign. Some Democrats accused Republicans of stoking Ebola fears for political advantage.

Yep, it's quite the mystery.