Kevin Drum

Buy Silver! (Health Insurance, That Is)

| Sun Nov. 15, 2015 6:21 PM EST

In the New York Times today, Robert Pear writes that Obamacare has a big problem: high deductibles. And this is true. Many bronze plans have deductibles of several thousand dollars, making them all but useless except as catastrophic coverage. But if you just go to and look for the cheapest plan, bronze is what you'll end up with.

The answer, for many low-income people, is to choose a silver plan. It's a little more expensive, but the terms of the insurance are far more generous. That's especially true if you take into account Cost Sharing Reduction, a feature of Obamacare that low-income families qualify for automatically but don't find out about until they're at the very end of the application process. It doesn't show up if you're just window shopping. However, as Andrew Sprung points out today, CSR changes the picture considerably.

Sprung may well be the nation's top expert in CSR, and I think he's closing in on his millionth written word about it. I, however, will do it all in a dozen. I went to and randomly chose Richmond, Virginia.  My baseline is a family of three earning $40,000, with the parents in their early thirties. Here's the cost of equivalent Anthem plans with federal subsidies included:

The silver plan costs about $50 per month more. But my family's income puts them at just under 200 percent of the poverty level, which means they qualify for a generous CSR. Compared to bronze, their individual deductible goes down from $5,500 to $250. Their individual out-of-pocket max goes down from $6,850 to $1,450. Their copay for a doctor's visit is less, their copay for a hospital visit is less, and their copay for prescription drugs is less.

As Sprung tirelessly points out, CSR is only available with silver plans. This makes the bottom line simple: Low-income families trying to buy serious health insurance on an exchange should always buy silver. Bronze is basically catastrophic insurance for 20-something kids who are certain they'll never use it. Silver is modestly more expensive, but the benefits are worth it, even if you have to scrimp to afford it.

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Let's Take a Look at How Tough Republicans Would Be Against ISIS

| Sun Nov. 15, 2015 2:10 PM EST

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, conservatives are eagerly taking the opportunity to accuse Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of fecklessness and appeasement for not taking a harder line against ISIS. We need someone with the guts to lead, and who isn't afraid to use the term radical Islam. Apparently that's important.

Maybe so. But ground troops are the only way to destroy ISIS in the short term, and the Republican presidential candidates have all been oddly reluctant to get behind a serious American invasion force. So before we allow them to get too far up on their high horses about how tough they'd be, here's a reminder of what they were saying about ISIS before two days ago.

Donald Trump wants to take away oil fields controlled by ISIS, but has explicitly dodged the question of whether he would use a substantial ground force to do it. His preference is for an air campaign: "I would just bomb those suckers. That's right. I'd blow up the pipes. I'd blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left."

From Tuesday's debate: "If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%."

Jeb Bush has previously ruled out a "major commitment" of ground troops. He would support a modest increase in "supportive" troops, and wants to unite the moderate anti-Assad forces in Syria. But he also thinks Trump is crazy.

From the debate: "Let ISIS take out Assad, and then Putin will take out ISIS?....That's not how the real world works. We have to lead, we have to be involved. We should have a no fly zone in Syria."

Carly Fiorina has specifically said ground troops are unnecessary. Our allies should provide any troops necessary.

From the debate: "We must have a no fly zone in Syria....We also have a set of allies in the Arab Middle East that know that ISIS is their fight....King Abdullah of Jordan....The Egyptians, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Bahrainis, the Emirati, the Kurds....They must see leadership support and resolve from the United States of America."

Marco Rubio said last year the he would like to see a permanent US presence in the Middle East. "I'm not saying 100,000 troops, but certainly some level that allows us to project power quickly and confront challenges and threats." More recently, he's backed off that position: "ISIS is a radical Sunni Islamic group. They need to be defeated on the ground by a Sunni military force with air support from the United States." And this: "Intervening doesn't mean ground troops. Intervening can be a lot of things." His official position on his website specifically recommends air strikes, special ops, training, arms for Sunni and Kurdish forces, diplomacy, financial targeting, and better PR. It does not mention ground troops.

From the debate: "ISIS is now in Libya....Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia....They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own."

Ben Carson has suggested that ground troops "might" be necessary, but has declined to go any further.

From the debate: "We're talking about global jihadists....We have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. Outside of Anbar in Iraq, there's a big energy field. Take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I've learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there."

Ted Cruz has suggested that Kurdish pesh merga are all we need: "We need boots on the ground, but they don't necessarily need to be American boots. The Kurds are our boots on the ground." Cruz has generally dodged specific questions about sending in American troops, instead supporting an "overwhelming" American air campaign.

From the debate: Cruz declined to address ISIS during the debate.

And just for comparison, here is Hillary Clinton on her website:

ISIS and the foreign terrorist fighters it recruits pose a serious threat to America and our allies. We will confront and defeat them in a way that builds greater stability across the region, without miring our troops in another misguided ground war. Hillary will empower our partners to defeat terrorism and the ideologies that drive it, including through our ongoing partnership to build Iraqi military and governing capacity, our commitment to Afghanistan’s democracy and security, and by supporting efforts to restore stability to Libya and Yemen.

So Hillary is a little bit more categorical about not using American ground troops, but basically she'd fit in just fine on the Republican stage. She supports an air campaign; she supports a no-fly zone in Syria; she supports arming the anti-Assad rebels; and she supports partnerships with our allies. If the Republican candidates are any tougher on ISIS than Hillary, they've been oddly timid about saying so.

Live Coverage of the Democratic Presidential Debate in Iowa

| Sat Nov. 14, 2015 5:23 PM EST

I feel like everyone did their best to pretend they disagreed on a few issues here and there, but let's face it: the pickings were slim. Gun control is a red herring; they're all on the same page. They all have the same goals on health care, but disagree about what's politically feasible right now. They all want lots of free college, but some want a little more than others. Etc.

There were two areas of genuine disagreement. The first is foreign policy, but everyone worked hard to stay anodyne, so none of the disagreements really came out. This is likely just because Hillary didn't want to get too hawkish in front of a Democratic primary crowd.

The second is financial regulation. Speaking for myself, I like Bernie's rhetoric, but I have to say that Hillary's actual proposals sound better. She's right to be skeptical about reinstating Glass-Steagall. She's right to talk about shadow banking, which neither of the others did. And she's right to go easy on the idea of breaking up big banks. Higher capital levels for money-center banks will rein in their growth and make the banking system safer at the same time.

As with the last debate, I doubt many minds were changed tonight. Nobody made any big gaffes, nor did anybody say anything that's likely to provoke a lot of new attention. The attacks on Hillary Clinton were few and mild, and she had no problem with any of them. I actually think Bernie did a little better than he did in the first debate, but not enough to make a difference. Basically, Hillary did fine, and that was all she needed to do. I guess I'd give Sanders an A- and Clinton a B+.

The moderators were OK, though they had a way easier task than the poor saps trying to keep control of the Republican slugfests. But I was pretty disappointed in John Dickerson's foreign policy questions, which seemed designed to be clever, rather than to pin down the candidates on what they'd actually do to fight ISIS. The crisis question toward the end was pretty fatuous, and it was also way too tilted in favor of Clinton. More generally, Dickerson hardly ever drilled down and tried to press the candidates on anything they said. I'll acknowledge that this was partly because the candidates didn't spout lots of transparently ridiculous nonsense, but there were still a few occasions when he could have been more forceful.

Transcript here.

It's nearly time to start. I figure this should be a leisurely liveblogging session since I'm planning to tune out whenever Martin O'Malley is talking. Nothing personal, but when you're polling at 3 percent in a 3-person race, you're just not a factor. Sorry.

10:53 - And that's a wrap.

10:52 - Sanders: Lots of stuff about America sucks. We need a political revolution. Also gets big cheers.

10:51 - Clinton will work her heart out. Big cheers, though.

10:50 - O'Malley says we shouldn't return to divisive figures of our past. Gee, I wonder who he could be referring to?

10:49 - Closing statements!

10:47 - O'Malley just flat-out admits that he hasn't really faced any big crises. But he has faced emergencies.

10:45 - What crises have you faced in your life? Sigh.

10:41 - Once again, poor Martin O'Malley gets cut off for a commercial break. Somebody at CBS really has it out for him.

10:40 - Clinton: "If I lived in Iowa I wouldn't want Terry Branstead administering my health care." Big cheers. This is indeed a problem with letting states administer health care.

10:37 - Clinton doesn't think taxpayers should pay to send Donald Trump's kids to college free.

10:35 - Sanders seems to think that states will be eager to chip in money to make college free. They sure haven't shown any such eagerness over the past few decades.

10:32 - Clinton is weaseling on whether she approves of student activism at U of Missouri. She appreciates the passion, but also thinks everyone should maintain respect for others.

10:26 - Hillary is once again sucking up to Obama.

10:23 - How would Sanders actually get anything done in the face of Republican opposition? All the wonks are probably thrilled with this kind of process question, but really, what possible answer can he give?

10:21 - Is Glass-Steagall really a big deal among the voters? How many people even know what it is? In any case, the meltdown of Wall Street came from both big firms and smaller ones. AIG was an insurance company. Washington Mutual was a pure bank. Citigroup was a huge conglomerate. Lehmann was in investment bank. Reserve Primary was a money-market fund. They all failed. Smallish banks failed too. Repealing GS really doesn't seem like it was a major cause of the financial collapse. And it had nothing at all to do with the shadow banking sector, which played a huge role in the meltdown.

10:13 - Sanders makes sure this time to say that he's not referring to Clinton when he talks about people yelling at each other.

10:10 - Now we are going to pretend that Hillary and Bernie have anything more than a sliver of difference on gun control.

10:08 - Glass-Steagall again. Give it a rest, folks. Repeal of GS just isn't at the core of anything.

10:06 - Bernie really wants to break up the big banks. This will never happen, and wouldn't really solve the big problems anyway.

10:05 - Finally, a fight! Bernie says Hillary will sell out to Wall Street. Hillary says Bernie has impugned her integrity. Hillary then says her financial proposal is actually broader and tougher than Bernie's.

10:01 - Clinton brings up the shadow banking industry again. But, as in the first debate, she doesn't really explain it. (Granted, that would be pretty tough in 60 seconds.)

9:55 - Now we're desperately trying to create some conflict over slightly different positions on the minimum wage. Clinton wants $12 with higher local wages. Sanders and O'Malley want 15 bucks everywhere. I hate to be such a sellout, but I'm with Clinton on this.

9:50 - I expect several minutes of violent agreement on comprehensive immigration reform.

9:45 - O'Malley just broke the rules. Apparently the rule in this case is that you have to shut up when it's time for a commercial break.

9:44 - Sanders wants genuine universal health care. He's also spending more time on providers, but it's still a little muddy. They really need to talk about this more. It's much more fundamental than problems with insurers.

9:43 - Clinton: Obamacare is great, and we should make it even greater. But she talks more about insurers than providers. That's a mistake.

9:41 - Sanders: Tax the wealthy until they scream. How high? Less than 90 percent. Ha ha ha. But no answer to the question.

9:37 - Clinton: no tax increase on middle class. Instead, tax the wealthy and close loopholes the rich take advantage of.

9:30 - There's just no disagreement to speak of so far. Partly this is because Dickerson's questions have been terrible. He's desperately trying to provoke a fight instead of demanding real answers about how we should fight ISIS.

9:28 - I think Bernie now has everyone saying Mooslims.

9:27 - How many minutes have we now spent arguing about the term "radical Islam"?

9:21 - Clinton trying to suggest Libya was a great success except for an "arc of instability" that Libya unfortunately just happened to be in the middle of.

9:15 - The candidates refuse to attack each other enough, so now John Dickerson is just flat-out begging them to attack.

9:14 - So far, nothing of real substance from anyone on terrorism or foreign affairs.

9:13 - Oh, I get it. They aren't in boxes. That's just the background. Weird. I might never have figured that out if it weren't for Bernie Sanders waving his arms around.

9:11 - Why is CBS putting the candidates in little square boxes?

9:09 - Clinton says we should support others in fight against ISIS, but not make this into an American war.

9:04 - A few days ago I joked that Republicans were going to demand that their website addresses be stenciled on the front of the podiums. But I had the wrong party. At tonight's Democratic debate, they all have their Twitter handles on their podiums. Boringly, though, I guess this is only because Twitter is cosponsoring the debate.

8:57 - The big pre-debate news is a Yahoo story saying that Bernie Sanders' rep went postal on a conference call this morning with CBS because he was unhappy over plans to begin the debate with foreign policy questions. I don't blame him, but seriously, what did he expect? There's more than a hundred dead in Paris following a series of coordinated terrorist strikes. What the hell else would you open the debate with?

Friday Cat Blogging - 13 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 2:55 PM EST

According to Marian, the second Friday the 13th of the year isn't unlucky. Is this really a thing? Or is she just yanking my chain?

Beats me. But why take chances? This week our (mostly) black cat gets a rest, and our lovely gray-and-white cat takes center stage. She does not look like she expects any kind of bad luck at all. And she was right! By rolling over and looking adorable she got an immediate tummy rub. Life is good.

Ted Cruz Really Hates Climate Change

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 2:36 PM EST

Yesterday I dinged Ted Cruz for blathering about how he'd eliminate five cabinet departments. Big deal. The programs would just go elsewhere. Instead, tell me what programs you'd eliminate.

As it turns out, Cruz does have a list of programs he wants to get rid of. It's really hard to find because his website is a horrific mess, but here it is:

  1. Climate Ready Water Utilities Initiative
  2. Climate Research Funding for the Office of Research and Development
  3. Climate Resilience Evaluation Awareness Tool
  4. Global Methane Initiative
  5. Green Infrastructure Program
  6. Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program
  7. New Starts Transit Program
  8. Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund
  9. Regulation of CO2 Emissions from Power Plants and all Sources
  10. Regulation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Vehicles
  11. Renewable Fuel Standard Federal Mandates
  12. UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  13. UN Population Fund (abortion)
  14. USDA Catfish Inspection Program (genuinely wasteful)
  15. Appalachian Regional Commission (helps poor people)
  16. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Obama program)
  17. Corporation for Public Broadcasting (culture war)
  18. Corporation for Travel Promotion (???)
  19. Legal Services Corporation (helps poor people)
  20. National Endowment for the Arts (culture war)
  21. National Endowment for the Humanities (culture war)
  22. Presidential Election Campaign Fund (no one uses it anymore)
  23. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (???)
  24. Sugar Subsidies (anti-Rubio)
  25. Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (part of hated Obama stimulus program)

I've re-ordered this list to make clear just how much Cruz hates climate change. Nearly half of his cuts are to programs related to the environment or climate change. Cruz also wants to ditch some culture warrior stuff (arts, humanities, public broadcasting), some anti-liberal stuff (legal services, CFPB, TIGER), some anti-Rubio stuff (sugar subsidies), and some genuinely stupid stuff (USDA catfish inspection, a clever protectionist measure beloved of catfish-producing states).

So how much would this save? Cruz says $50 billion per year, but that seems pretty optimistic. The catfish thing, for example, costs $14 million, and lots of items on the list don't cost the government anything. I suppose I could google all 25 of them and see what they add up to, but not today. My horseback guess, though, is maybe $10-20 billion.

I've tried to identify the reasons Cruz hates each of these programs, but I came up blank on two of them: travel promotion and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Maybe they're genuinely wasteful. I'm not sure.

In any case, this is it. Cruz deserves credit for at least making a list, which is more than most candidates are willing to do. But will this actually save more than a tiny fraction of his stupendous tax cuts? Not a chance.

A Question For New Parents

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 1:12 PM EST

Does it ever bother you that in a few years your kids will be able to Google all the stuff you're now saying on social media?

And for not-so-new parents: Do your kids Google all the stuff you said on social media ten years ago? Do you have any amusing stories to tell about this? Any advice for new parents?

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Donald Trump Insulted Every Evangelical in Iowa Last Night

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 12:24 PM EST

Apropos of Donald Trump's temper tantrum in Fort Dodge last night, a number of people have hastened to make the point that you can't blame it on the fact that Trump is now losing to Ben Carson. He's not losing. He's just not as far ahead as he used to be. That's true enough, on a national level. But in Iowa—which is where Trump was speaking—he really is losing. The Iowa GOP is heavily dominated by evangelicals, and they love them some of that old time Ben Carson. Trump, by contrast, apparently doesn't understand evangelicals even slightly. I suppose he doesn't run into them much in New York developer circles. For example, here's part of yesterday's attack on Ben Carson:

"He goes into the bathroom for a couple of hours and he comes out and now he's religious," Trump said. "And the people of Iowa believe him. Give me a break. Give me a break. It doesn't happen that way. It doesn't happen that way....Don't be fools, okay?"

But this is precisely how evangelicals think it happens. Trump is bluntly insulting every evangelical in the audience with this show of temper. He just doesn't get it, and it's driving him nuts.

Go Ahead, Make Your Best Case Against the Oxford Comma

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 11:59 AM EST

Atrios is singing my song:

The one "grammar debate" I don't get is the Oxford Comma debate. Of course there should be one. There's no argument for leaving them out, and a million obvious ones for including them. There is no debate. Include it, barbarians.

I've never gotten this either. Even if the lack of a final comma creates ambiguity only one time in a hundred, why not use it for that one time in a hundred? It's completely harmless the other 99 times, isn't it? Seriously: what's the argument against the Oxford comma?

This Election Is Not About the Economy

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 11:16 AM EST

Ezra Klein says America is doing a whole lot better than Republican presidential candidates make it sound:

They would be surprised to find that unemployment is at five percent, America's recovery from the financial crisis has outpaced that of other developed nations, the percentage of uninsured Americans has been plummeting even as Obamacare has cost less than expected, and there's so much money flowing into new ideas and firms in the tech industry that observers are worried over a second tech bubble.

....This leaves Republicans with two problems. The first is that the economy simply isn't as bad as they're making it out to be — and so the apocalyptic rhetoric may well run into month after month of good jobs numbers during the general election....The second is that Republicans are increasingly focused on economic problems they don't really know how to solve, and don't have much credibility to say they will solve.

This is all completely correct, but I think there's an interesting point buried here: Republicans aren't really talking about the economy when they adopt this "apocalyptic" rhetoric. In fact, so far this hasn't been an election about the economy at all.

It's a culture war election. The topics that have really driven the campaign so far are illegal immigration, political correctness, abortion, Obamacare, Vladimir Putin, the war on Christianity, and so forth. By contrast, the attacks on the economy mostly feel pro forma and are used primarily to add flavor to the real issue driving Republican voters. And right now, that issue is the apparent feeling among many conservatives that the America they love is spiraling down the drain, becoming weak and dependent and altogether too brown.

Obviously this has been building for years, but it feels like this is the first election in which it's really front and center. Of course, if America is really sinking into socialism and social degeneration, then the economy must be doing badly too. So all the candidates do their best to make it sound like Democrats have driven us into a ditch. That's normal politics, but this year it's also a stand-in. When they say the economy is doing badly, what they really mean is that America is doing badly. And their audiences are eating it up.

The Strain of Losing to Ben Carson Has Finally Driven Donald Trump Crazy

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 12:58 AM EST

From a Republican strategist upset about the state of the primary race:

We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job. It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?

So there you have it: The only thing worse than electing Hillary Clinton president is the possibility of not electing Hillary Clinton president.

A few hours later, as if to prove this guy's point, Donald Trump staged a 95-minute meltdown (video above) apparently brought on by the ungodly strain of making four campaign appearances in four days:

He said he would "bomb the s---" out of areas controlled by the Islamic State....He accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of playing the "woman's card," and said Marco Rubio is "weak like a baby." He signed a book for an audience member and then threw it off the stage....And he spent more than 10 minutes angrily attacking his chief rival, Ben Carson, at one point calling him "pathological, damaged."

Gone was the candidate's recent bout of composure and control on the campaign trail....An hour and 20 minutes into the speech, people who were standing on risers on the stage behind Trump sat down. The applause came less often and less loud. As Trump skewered Carson in deeply personal language, a sense of discomfort settled on the crowd of roughly 1,500. Several people shook their heads or whispered to their neighbors.

Carson wrote in his autobiography that as a young man he....[tried] to stab a friend, only to have the blade stopped and broken by the friend's belt buckle....Trump said he doesn't believe Carson is telling the truth and questioned how a belt buckle could stop a blade. He stepped away from the podium and acted out how he imagined such an attack would happen, with his own belt buckle flopping around.

....And yet Carson is doing well in the polls, Trump said in disbelief. "How stupid are the people of Iowa?" Trump said. "How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"

I remember a lot of people wondering how Trump would handle things if the time came when he was no longer leading in the polls. I guess now we know. It's too much for his ego to stand, and the phenomenal self-discipline he's been showing recently is utterly shattered. Can you imagine what Trump would be like if he ever had a genuinely stressful job, like, um, you know?

POSTSCRIPT: For three months, all the other candidates have been shaking their heads and muttering, "I'm losing to this guy?" Now Trump knows how they feel. And I don't really blame any of them. Trailing either Trump or Carson is enough to make anyone start to doubt their own sanity.