Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Obamacare Just Keeps Working, and Working, and Working....

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 10:23 AM EST

Last year, as Obamacare finally went into full effect, the ranks of the uninsured began to drop sharply. Despite all the website problems and the repeated predictions of doom from conservatives, it turned out that Obamacare was working well. Then things stabilized as open enrollment ended. Today, Gallup released new results for the final quarter of 2014, which marked the start of Obamacare's second year of enrollment, and guess what? The ranks of the uninsured are dropping yet again. The percentage of adults without health insurance dropped from 13.4 percent to 12.9 percent:

The Affordable Care Act has accomplished one of its goals: increasing the percentage of Americans who have health insurance coverage. The uninsured rate as measured by Gallup has dropped 4.2 points since the requirement to have health insurance or pay a fine went into effect. It will likely drop further as plans purchased during the current open enrollment period take effect. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that 6.5 million Americans either selected new plans or were automatically re-enrolled into a plan via HealthCare.gov as of Dec. 26, 2014.

....Other signs also point to the uninsured rate falling more after this open enrollment period ends. HHS continues to focus on the financial assistance available to enrollees and increasing the fine for not having health insurance....The uninsured rate could also fall further as more states expand Medicaid.

The uninsurance rate has dropped the most among blacks, Hispanics, the young, and the poor. It's dropped by only a small amount among the middle classes, since they're mostly insured already by their employers. But even right smack in the middle, uninsurance rates have dropped by three percentage points. Obamacare just keeps on working, and it's working for everyone.

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Here's a Quickie Checklist of Global Economic Worries

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 1:36 AM EST

Just to keep everyone up to speed, here's a checklist of the big things that are currently worrying investors about the global economy:

  • A possible Greek exit from the euro—aka "Grexit"—following elections later this month. On the bright side, there's not much fear any longer that this might produce contagion that blows up larger economies like Italy and Portugal. On the dark side, that lack of fear might very well be a mistake. Panic was still contagious the last time I checked.
  • Recession and a deflationary spiral in the eurozone. Germany, which pretty much runs the show in Europe, is still doing its damnedest to prevent the European economy from showing any signs of life, which means that stagnation there could last a long time.
  • A slowdown in China, possibly accompanied by a property bust.
  • Problems in emerging economies with lots of dollar-denominated debts thanks to the continuing strong dollar.

All of this combines to make investors worried about the US as well. The American economy is a bright spot right now, but it can't drive the world economy all by itself. If everyone else goes kablooey, then the US economy will eventually suffer as well, and this could cause the global economy to go even further into recession.

So....those are the things you'll probably be reading a lot about over the next few weeks and months. Now you know.

Republicans Are Facing a Mighty Big Headwind in 2016

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 8:41 PM EST

Democrats do better in elections when the minority population grows. Everyone knows that. And the minority population is, in fact, growing. Everyone knows that, too. So does that mean Democrats are sure winners in future presidential contests?

Hardly. But it does put Republicans in a bind, since it means they need to increase their voting share among minorities. This is going to be tough, since they've done nothing much to appeal to non-white voters over the past decade or so. Still, in 2016 at least Barack Obama won't be on the ballot. So maybe, just maybe, Republicans have a chance to recover the level of minority support they enjoyed in 2004, back when two white guys were running against each other.

But it turns out that even here the news is bad. Patrick Oakford of the Center for American Progress ran the numbers to see how Republicans would do if their minority support in 2016 rose back to 2004 levels. Here are the results in two big swing states:

Republicans would still win Florida—barely—but would lose Ohio badly. This is a state that Bush won handily in 2004, and one that Republicans can't do without. By 2016, however, voters of color will make up such a large share of the Ohio electorate that even 2004 levels of support won't win the state for Republicans. They'll have to do even better than that, and the same is true in several other key swing states. Here's Oakford:

This analysis shows—through a variety of election simulations—that as people of color become a larger share of states’ electorates, it will be crucial for both Republicans and Democrats to secure the support of this vital voter cohort....For Republicans, simply repeating the history of 2004—obtaining significant support among voters of color—will not necessarily mean a win in many swing states, including Ohio and Nevada.

The GOP has a tough presidential row to hoe in 2016. They aren't sure losers by any stretch, but to win they're going to have to do a lot better among minority voters than they've done anytime recently. It's not clear what their plan is to do that.

Road Funding Isn't Broken. Why Fix It?

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 1:44 PM EST

James Pethokoukis is skeptical that even with gasoline prices plunging toward the two-dollar mark, Congress will consider raising the gasoline tax. Me too. But then there's this:

Of course, another idea — as transportation experts Matthew Kahn and David Levinson wrote in a 2011 report — is to just freeze the gas tax as is and use revenue solely to bolster existing roads and bridges, including the addition of new pricing schemes to reduce congestion. Funding for new capacity would come from a new federal highway bank, which would loan money to states contingent on meeting stringent performance tests and demonstrating ability to repay the loans. Other options include axing the tax completely and letting states fund their own projects or public-private partnerships. How about some fresh, innovative thinking on infrastructure rather than defaulting to the status quo?

There are plenty of places where we could use fresh thinking. But is this really one of them? It's infrastructure development. The simplest and most straightforward way of doing it is to raise money via taxes and then spend it. Loans aren't innovative. Dumping it all on the states isn't innovative. Public-private partnerships aren't innovative.

In fact, all of this is the opposite of innovative. They're just Rube Goldberg mechanisms to avoid transparent taxation and spending, something that we already do way too much of via subsidies and tax expenditures. Here's my idea of innovative:

  1. We figure out how much we want to spend on transportation infrastructure.
  2. We decide which taxes are the fairest, most efficient funding source.
  3. We set tax rates to match (1) and (2).
  4. We spend the money.

That's clear and transparent. It's reasonably efficient. It's an appropriate way to fund public goods. What's not to like?

Generally speaking, my point here is that just because something is traditional doesn't mean it's a dinosaur. We should pick and choose our targets for reform and innovation, not use them merely as buzzwords. If you want to build a road, nothing much has changed over the past century. You just need to raise the money and then break ground. You might want to do more or less of it, or build different kinds of roads, or build roads to different places. But funding them? We already know how to do that. Why muck it up?

The Itsy Bitsy Ambitions of John Boehner

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 10:44 AM EST

You can't accuse John Boehner of starry-eyed idealism:

When I ask him to name his top priority, he lays out not a grand legislative bargain but a seemingly modest managerial goal that has eluded him for much of his time at the top: exercising enough control over his conference to pass spending bills through regular order.

Um, OK. That seems doable. But I'm not so sure about this:

The idea of a Boehner-Obama bargain late in the game is no idle fantasy....Boehner told me “bipartisanship” was in fact one of his top priorities for 2015, and, in private, in the wake of the 2013 shutdown debacle, Boehner told his inner circle that he has no problems passing big legislation “by working directly with the Democrats” if his own conference defies him again.

....That’s the way it worked in December: Two-thirds of Republicans joined about one-third of Democrats to pass a Boehner government-funding plan....When I asked Boehner if he worried Republicans would slam him for dealing with Democrats, he blew a puff of smoke and answered, “I don’t care.”

It's true that during the recent lame-duck session, Boehner was willing to pass a compromise budget that alienated much of his own caucus and required lots of help from Democrats to pass. But will he be willing to do that when it comes to a "big deal on taxes, entitlements and government spending, trade and immigration"? I have my doubts, no matter how much we hear that Boehner and Obama are really tighter buddies than you'd think. It's not just that Boehner really, truly has to be willing to defy a big chunk of his caucus, after all. He also has to be willing to take the risk of making genuine compromises in order to get a sizeable chunk of Democrats on board. Outside of budget deals, I've simply seen no evidence that Boehner is willing to do that—or, even if he is, that he has the mojo within his own caucus to get most of them to agree to such a deal.

But we'll see. Maybe Boehner will surprise us. I just wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Republicans Will Never Allow Guantánamo To Be Closed

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 10:05 AM EST

I guess you can add this to the list of President Obama's executive actions designed to circumvent an unhelpful Republican Congress:

In a series of secret nighttime flights in the last two months, the Obama administration made more progress toward the president’s goal of emptying the military prison at Guantánamo Bay...Now 127 prisoners remain at Guantánamo, down from 680 in 2003, and the Pentagon is ready to release two more groups of prisoners in the next two weeks; officials will not provide a specific number.

President Obama’s goal in the last two years of his presidency is to deplete the Guantánamo prison to the point where it houses 60 to 80 people and keeping it open no longer makes economic sense.

Hmmm. Will Republicans be willing to close Guantánamo if it no longer makes economic sense to keep it open? Color me skeptical. This is a tough-on-terrorism issue, not a budget issue. If I had to guess, I'd say that Republicans would refuse to close Guantánamo if there were even a single prisoner left there. If it becomes a US version of Spandau, well, that's just fine. Closing it is for appeasing, weak-kneed, liberals, not rock-jawed severe conservatives.

In fact, I could easily see this becoming a stock question during the Republican primaries. "Would you ever close Guantánamo?" The candidates will then take turns trying to top each other with ever more absurdly hawkish answers, the same way they did with immigration in 2012. Like this:

Candidate 1: I will never close Guantánamo. These are the most dangerous people in the world.

Candidate 2: Not only wouldn't I close it, I'd expand it.

Candidate 3: Expand it and make it more secure. I'd build a moat.

Candidate 4: And an electrified fence.

Candidate 5: I'd take away their Obamacare!

At that, everyone would look admiringly at Candidate 5 and silently give him the victory.

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It's Omnicom's World, We Just Live In It

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 9:31 AM EST

Luke O'Brien has a wonderful little story in Politico about the trials and tribulations of being on Russia's PR team these days, and it's worth a read if you have a bit of time to kill. But if you don't have the time, I was intrigued by just the list of names that peppered the piece. Here you go:

Ketchum, the giant PR agency on the Russia account....turned to The Washington Group....owned by Omnicom....Alston & Bird....Clark & Weinstock, an Omnicom company....APCO Worldwide....Diversified Energy Communications Ltd....action-movie star Steven Seagal....Global Strategic Communications Group.

Someday, we will all work for Omnicom, with an occasional job on the side for Global Strategic Communications Group. It sounds lovely, doesn't it? Almost like working for the dark side of a James Bond movie.

Repeat After Me: Competition Is Good. Competition Is Good.

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 8:21 PM EST

Did you know that companies facing no competition are likely to charge you more? It's true! But in case you'd like a bit of evidence for this truism, Binyamin Appelbaum directs our attention to a clever study of mortgage rates from the Chicago Fed. It turns out that when the federal government authorized the mortgage refinancing program called HARP, they set up the rules in a way that discouraged anyone from participating aside from the original lender. This meant that, effectively, the original lender had little or no competition for the refinanced loan.

The results are shown on the right. The HARP rules took effect for mortgages with a loan-to-value ratio of 80 percent or higher. Private label mortgages, which didn't fall under the new rules, show a normal range of interest rate spreads at all LTV values. But loans backed by Fannie Mae, which did fall under the new rules, show a sharp discontinuity upward precisely at an LTV of 80.

In other words, at exactly the point where lenders faced no effective competition thanks to HARP rules—i.e., Fannie-backed loans with an LTV of 80 or above—interest rate spreads suddenly increased by about 0.2 percent. Without competition, lenders were free to charge a little more, and they did.

I know: you're shocked. And in case you're tempted to think that 0.2 percent doesn't really seem like that much, the authors point out that it adds up fast: "While the anti-competitive features of HARP may appear to have curtailed borrower gains by relatively small amounts, they resulted in sizable increases in profitability for a subset of lenders. These results further highlight the importance of restoring full competitiveness to mortgage refinancing markets."

Quite so. Competition is good. We've paid less and less attention to this over the past few decades, and we do so at our peril. It's the heart and soul of capitalism.

Iowa to Democrats: Please, Please Have a Real Race So We Can Get Lots of Your Money

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 1:15 PM EST

Last night I noticed a Wall Street Journal piece about Iowa Democrats being slow to "rally" around Hillary Clinton, but I only read the first couple of paragraphs before I got bored. Today, Ed Kilgore tells me I quit too soon. If I had read to the bottom, I would have learned that this phenomenon probably has nothing really to do with a desire for a more populist candidate:

State Democratic officials also want a contested race because that boosts the party apparatus and fundraising....“When we have these candidates out here running for office, we invite them to county dinners and the numbers swell at these events,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of Democratic Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. “So it is a great, great service for the Democratic Party to have these candidates running for office.”

Kilgore explains further:

You have to appreciate that candidates in both parties for state and local office in Iowa (and to a lesser extent, in other early states) are accustomed to enjoying the benefit of world-class mailing lists, state-of-the-art campaign infrastructures, and top-shelf campaign staffers from all over the country. These goodies come to them courtesy of presidential candidates, proto-presidential candidates, people who want to work on presidential campaigns, and people who want to influence presidential campaigns. This is why Iowans so fiercely protect their first-in-the-nation-caucus status, and also why they hate uncontested presidential nomination contests. So of course they don't want HRC to win without a challenge.

Roger that. In any case, talk is cheap right now. My guess is that everything changes once HRC actually announces her candidacy. When that happens, I'll bet everyone starts rallying just fine. Iowa Democrats might be eager for their quadrennial infusion of money and pandering, but not so eager that they want to risk being caught on the losing side. Once the pressure is on to become an early HRC supporter or else spend the rest of the year on the Clinton shit list, well, I have a feeling an awful lot of early supporters are suddenly going to come out of the woodwork. We'll see.

Without Fox News, There Would Have Been No Iraq War

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 12:24 PM EST

Max Ehrenfreund points to an interesting tidbit this morning. A pair of researchers have released a working paper that attempts to figure out if watching Fox News makes you more conservative. They do this by exploiting the fact that channel numbers on cable systems are placed fairly randomly throughout the country, and people tend to watch channels with lower numbers. Thus, in areas where Fox has a low channel number, it gets watched a little bit more in a way that has nothing to do with whether the local viewers were more conservative in the first place.

So does randomly surfing over to Fox News tend to make you more right-wing? Yes indeed! "We estimate that Fox News increases the likelihood of voting Republican by 0.9 points among viewers induced into watching four additional minutes per week by differential channel positions." And this in turn means that we owe the Iraq War to Fox News: "We estimate that removing Fox News from cable television during the 2000 election cycle would have reduced the average county's Republican vote share by 1.6 percentage points."

And what about MSNBC? It had no effect until the 2008 election, after it had made the switch to liberal prime-time programming. At that point, it becomes pretty similar to Fox in the opposite direction. But the effect is subtly different:

The largest elasticity magnitudes are on individuals from the opposite ideology of the channel, with Fox generally better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans. This last feature is consistent with the regression result that the IV effect of Fox is greater than the corresponding effect for MSNBC.

....Table 16 shows the estimated persuasion rates of the channels at converting votes from one party to the other. The numerator here is the number of, for example, Fox News viewers who are initially Democrats but by the end of an election cycle change to supporting the Republican party. The denominator is the number of Fox News viewers who are initially Democrats. Again, Fox is more effective at converting viewers than is MSNBC.

The difference in persuasion rates is significant: the study finds that in the 2008 election, a full 50 percent of Fox's left-of-center viewers switched to supporting Republicans. For MSNBC, the number of switchers was only 30 percent. That's a big difference.

Now, in real-world terms this is still a smallish effect since neither channel has a lot of regular viewers from the opposite ends of their ideological spectrums in the first place. Still, this is interesting. I've always believed that conservatives in general, and Fox in particular, are better persuaders than liberals, and this study seems to confirm that. But why? Is Fox's conservatism simply more consistent throughout the day, thus making it more effective? Is there something about the particular way Fox pushes hot buttons that makes it more effective at persuading folks near the center? Or is Fox just average, and MSNBC is unusually poor at persuading people? I can easily believe, for example, that Rachel Maddow's snark-based approach persuades very few conservative leaners to switch sides.

Anyway, fascinating stuff, even if none of it comes as a big surprise. Fox really has had a big effect on Republican fortunes over the past two decades.