Yet More Healthcare Nonsense Debunked

No, healthcare reform will not cost America 800,000 jobs. (Link.) What's next up to bat? Oh yes: the claim that the Chicago thugs in the White House are engaged in naked corruption by granting waivers from the law to organizations friendly to the Democratic Party. Take it away, Suzy:

Now an audit by the Government Accountability Office—the investigative watchdog of Congress—has blown the GOP attack out of the water....According to the GAO, the Obama administration granted waivers if following the new health-care regulations would raise premiums for employers by more than 10 percent. It generally rejected applications if the premiums would rise by 6 percent or less. Overall, the Obama administration "approved 1,347—more than 95 percent—of the applications in their entirety, while rejecting 25 in part and 40 in whole," The Hill reports.

What's more, "according to the GAO's data, the majority of denials were for plans that covered union employees," the House Energy and Commerce Democrats pointed out on Tuesday. Such evidence further deflates the GOP accusation that unions were getting a disproportionate number of waivers because of their political ties to the Democratic Party.

This stuff is never going to stop, of course. The party that brought you death panels is unlikely to let facts get in their way, after all. By this time next year we'll probably be hearing that Obamacare deliberately favors illegal immigrants over hardworking white people, leading to thousands of deaths of people who probably would have voted against The One in November. Brace yourselves.

Tim Pawlenty might not have made a great impression during Monday's debate, but actions speak louder than words. And Pawlenty's actions on the tax front are loud indeed. Just to refresh your memory, here's his plan:

We should cut the business tax rate by more than half. I propose reducing the current rate from 35% to 15%....On the individual rates we need a simpler, fairer and flatter tax system overall. I propose just two rates, 10% and 25%. Under my plan, those who currently pay no income tax would stay at a zero rate. After that, the first fifty-thousand dollars of income or one-hundred thousand for married couples would be taxed at 10%. Everything above that would be taxed at 25%. That’s it....In addition, we should eliminate all together the capital gains tax, interest income tax, dividends tax and the death tax.

The Tax Policy Center has done its best to turn this into hard numbers, and the chart on the right shows the results. As usual, a bone is thrown to us schmoes making 50 grand or so: our after-tax incomes would go up about 5%. Let's all go to Disneyland! But the real action is at the high end: income increases of 15-20% for the wealthy. Party time! And the super-rich millionaire class? It's Katy bar the door: they'll see their after-tax income go up by a walloping 33%. Time to buy that second yacht!

Say what you want about how boring Pawlenty is, but he knows his audience: scraps for the middle class who aren't in on the con while the wealthy who understand exactly what's going on rake in billions. Is that cynical behavior from this son of a milk truck driver? Sure. But hardly a surprise from anyone who knows the Republican Party's real power base. Pawlenty obviously knows it better than most.

Map of the Day: Falling Life Expectancies

In lots of place in the United States, women are living shorter lives than they used to:

In 737 U.S. counties out of more than 3,000, life expectancies for women declined between 1997 and 2007. For life expectancy to decline in a developed nation is rare. Setbacks on this scale have not been seen in the U.S. since the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to demographers.

"There are just lots of places where things are getting worse," said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which conducted the research. "We're not keeping up."

....A key finding of the data is that "inequality appears to be growing in the U.S.," said Eileen Crimmins, a gerontologist at USC who also co-chaired the 2011 National Academies panel on life expectancies. "We are different than other countries."

The map is below.

Is the Huffington Post Unfair to Labor?

Erik Loomis brings our attention to a virtual picket line:

As some but by no means all progressives know, the Newspapers Guild and the National Writers Union have called a boycott against Huffington Post for refusing to pay its writers. Unlike unionized workplaces like the New York Times, Huffington Post exploits laborers desperate to get in print by offering them a byline without compensation while Ariana Huffington makes millions. The unions want the writers to get paid and to have greater editorial control over their content.

....Like higher education with its hordes of PhDs with no job prospects, there is a huge supply of writers who want to make a living in journalism. HuffPo offers the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big.

It's been a long time since I've had a picket line not to cross (I think the Southern California supermarket strike eight years ago was the last one around here), and it would be great to have another one — especially since I'm a unionized writer myself. But I have my doubts about this one. However, my doubts turn on an empirical question: is Loomis right that most of HuffPo's unpaid bloggers have been lured in by "the promise of gaining valuable experience and readership so that someday, maybe, you can make it big"?

This is a real question. My sense is that there are three basic kinds of writers who put up free blog posts at HuffPo:

  1. Big name folks like Robert Reich who write opinion stuff for free all the time.
  2. Hollywood stars that Arianna has provided yet another platform to.
  3. Little guys.

Obviously it's only the little guys that we're concerned about here. But I doubt that very many of them are posting at HuffPo in hopes of breaking into big-time journalism. Rather, they're more like people who write letters to the editor: they like the idea of their opinions being read by a big audience and have never really dreamed of any serious career in journalism. They just want to be seen and heard.

So that's the question: are HuffPo's little-guy bloggers more like letter writers, who have never been compensated, or are they mostly folks who desperately want to break into the opinion biz and have been deluded into thinking that blogging for HuffPo is a good way to do that? If it's the latter, then I think the Guild has a point. If you read HuffPo more regularly than me — or, better yet, if you blog for HuffPo on a freebie basis — let me know what you think in comments.

Has Grover Norquist Lost His Hold on the GOP?

As I've mentioned before, Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge — signed in blood by virtually every Republican member of Congress — is really more of an anti-revenue pledge. Norquist believes in small government, so he opposes anything that increases government revenue. This means that if there's some kind of tax loophole or tax credit in the law, he's opposed to repealing it since that would effectively raise tax revenue.

Yesterday, the Senate voted on a bill by Tom Coburn that would eliminate the ethanol subsidy. Norquist opposed it for the usual reasons, but most Senate Republicans voted for it. It's a Norquist revolt!

Grover Norquist's grip on the Republican Party's tax policy slipped dramatically on Tuesday, a development that is likely to have significant repercussions on the debate over spending, revenue and the federal deficit....Norquist has been vicious in his recent talks on Coburn, charging that his amendment means he "lied his way into office" and is breaking the pledge.

....Late on Friday, as it became increasingly clear the Republican conference was shifting toward Coburn, Norquist performed a bit of legislative gymnastics, releasing a statement saying that it was okay to support the Coburn amendment — the same measure he'd savaged for weeks — as long as Coburn also supported an amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would cut the estate tax and repeal ethanol subsidies.

Wait a second.  Was this bundling maneuver just a last-minute trick on Norquist's part to save face? To some extent, sure. But it basically sounds to me like classic Grover: he's opposed to net tax increases, not all tax increases. As long as you support an overall decrease in taxes, it's OK if there are individual tax components that are increased. But a bunch of senators saw Norquist's change of heart differently:

That enraged several Republican opponents of Coburn’s plan, who believed that Norquist was simply giving political cover to senators who want it both ways on the issue: They wanted to vote to eliminate what they see as unnecessary ethanol subsidies but not be accused of raising taxes....The fight came to a boil at a closed-door meeting of several GOP senators Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill, with Norquist’s supporters saying they needed to maintain the arrangement to prevent accusations of breaking the party’s anti-tax orthodoxy, several attendees said. But others were not convinced.

“This is a tremendous amount of gymnastics to try to get the pledge to fit so they can say that this amendment is OK,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota....Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), one of ethanol’s biggest proponents, said “there is a certain inconsistency because there are two separate votes."

Hmmm. So one anti-tax wing of the party is pissed off because Norquist flayed them for voting to end ethanol subsidies, and another anti-tax wing is pissed off because Norquist then said it was OK as long as you also voted for an accompanying tax decrease. Poor Grover.

But here's an interesting thing: the second group largely comes from corn states while the first group largely comes from non-corn states. So maybe this is more of a good old sectional fight than a real schism on the proper interpretation of Norquist's anti-tax pledge.

We'll see. The theory here is that having once voted to end a tax expenditure (the ethanol subsidy), Republicans will now be more willing to defy Norquist and vote to end other, bigger tax expenditures (mortgage interest, employer healthcare contributions). I have my doubts about that. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona may have voted for the Coburn amendment, but he's also adamant that revenue increases remain off-limits in the debt ceiling talks. This vote has produced a lot of over-the-top rhetoric and frayed tempers, but in the end I suspect it doesn't mean much. Republicans remain just as firmly anti-tax in all its incarnations as they've ever been. Especially with an election coming up.

From Mitt Romney, asked whether the federal government should respond to natural disasters or just let the states handle it:

Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction.

Like Michele Bachmann's promise to do away with the EPA, this didn't even raise any eyebrows. But it's a pretty sweeping statement, no? Every single thing that could conceivably be done by the states, should be done by the states. Aside from national defense and a bit of foreign policy, that really doesn't leave much for the federal government to do any more, does it?

Do American Schoolkids Suck at History?

The latest NAEP scores are out showing how much our schoolkids know about U.S. history. Results from the past 16 years for three different grade levels are on the right. Quick: what's your reaction?

If you're anything like me, it's something like "not bad." Fourth grade scores overall are up by about one grade level (two grade levels for blacks and Hispanics); eighth grade scores overall are up about half a grade level; and 12th grade scores are flat. (Ten points roughly equals a grade level on the NAEP test.)  It's mostly good news — moderately good news, to be sure, but in any case nothing to be wildly distressed about. Unless you're an education wonk interviewed by the New York Times:

U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show

American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released on Tuesday....Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam.

....Fewer than a third of eighth graders could answer even a “seemingly easy question” asking them to identify an important advantage American forces had over the British during the Revolution....Only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education....“The answer was right in front of them,” [Education historian Diane] Ravitch said. “This is alarming.”

....If history is American students’ worst subject, economics is their best: 42 percent of high school seniors were deemed proficient in the 2006 economics test, a larger proportion than in any other subject over the last decade.

Something smells wrong here on a variety of counts:

  • High school seniors are far more proficient in economics than history? That really sets my BS alarm flashing. Has anyone noticed that 18-year-olds have lately begun demonstrating a great grasp of economics? Anyone?
  • Only 2% of high school seniors correctly answered an item about Brown? That's crazy. There has to have been something wrong with that question.
  • "Proficient" is a purely arbitrary standard. You can make it go up or down just by deciding what you think people ought to know. Are you non-proficient in high school economics if you don't know how interest rates affect the economy? Are you non-proficient in history if you don't know that China fought alongside North Korea in the Korean War? It all depends, doesn't it?
  • I went through the five sample questions for 12th graders, and I have serious doubts that my 12th grade self could have answered two of them. I was a pretty good student in high school, but as near as I can tell this performance would have qualified me as barely proficient.

I'm just not sure what to think here. It's obvious that American schoolkids aren't getting any worse at history. It's also clear that the history profession has a very high bar for what it considers minimal proficiency in U.S. history. Beyond that, I'm not sure what these results tell us.

Europe's Monetary Woes

Via Ryan Avent, Fernanda Nechio of the San Francisco Fed has produced a chart that demonstrates Europe's monetary problems in a nutshell. It shows the interest rate target of the European Central Bank (red line) compared to the rate suggested by a simple application of the Taylor rule. But instead of looking at the euro area as a whole, he breaks it into a set of core countries (Germany, France, and a few others) and peripheral countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain).

This makes Europe's problem clear: it's a lousy currency area. Between 2001 and 2006, ECB policy was OK for the core economies but way too permissive for the peripheral economies, which eventually spiraled out of control. Then, ever since 2009, ECB policy has been far too restrictive for the periphery. Roughly speaking, the ECB has run monetary policy all along so that it's fairly reasonable for the big, central economies of Germany and France but monstrously inappropriate for the smaller economies on the periphery. The result has been catastrophic.

There's a bit of evidence — take it with a grain of salt — that the ECB is perfectly happy with this state of affairs and hopes to use the current crisis to force closer fiscal union on the euro area's governments. But given the ECB's obvious bias in favor of Europe's core economies, Ryan says, "If the ECB is unsuccessful in winning such progress from core governments, however, we shouldn't be surprised if peripheral economies find euro-zone policy intolerable and — eventually — drop out of the system entirely." We'll see.

Are Tea Partiers Mad at Big Business?

David Brooks says that tea partiers are angry at the "unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country." I think that's crazy: tea partiers don't seem to have any problem with big business at all. But Tim Carney thinks I'm nuts:

Does Drum think that Tea Partiers prefer a complex, special-interest-rewarding, behavior-modifying tax code to a flat and simple one? Does Drum think that Tea Partiers cheer for regulations like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the tobacco regulation bill, and the employer mandate in health-care that Big Businesses support in order to crush smaller competitors?

Just for the sake of discussion, let's grant that these bills favor big companies over small ones. It's more complicated than that, but leave that aside. Contra Carney, the question isn't whether tea partiers cheer for bills like this (I doubt it), it's whether the main source of their anger is that these bills favor big business. There's simply no evidence of that at all, as near as I can tell. I can't think of a single hot button tea party issue that's related to the power of big business or to the coziness of corporate lobbyists with our nation's lawmakers. It's simply not something that ever comes up in conversations with tea partiers. It's all about Obama and socialism and Obama and government spending and Obama and deficits and Obama.

Needless to say, it's hard to prove this one way or the other. Who knows what's really in the hearts of tea partiers? But for what it's worth, here's some evidence from a much discussed New York Times poll of tea partiers from last last year. They asked an open-ended question: "What are you most angry about?" Not only is there nothing whatsoever there about big business, but a mere 18 months after an economic collapse that was widely blamed on some of the biggest businesses around, virtually no one said they were most angry at Wall Street, big banks, or the bank bailout. It wasn't even on their radar.

Maybe tea partiers are angrier about government coziness with big business than I think. But I sure don't see it in either their rhetoric, their funders, their legislative priorities, or the polling evidence.

The Worst is Yet to Come

Over at National Review, Tevi Troy says that Monday's GOP debate was pretty good:

The Republican debate dispelled at least two clichés about American politics, that it is nastier than ever and that it is not substantive. For two hours, the Republican candidates had a civil and mostly informed debate about serious issues.

It's true: the debate was mostly civil. And although I might not have been quite as impressed as Troy was by how informed it was, I suppose that by the degraded standards of modern politics it was reasonably substantive.

But this is more a warning about what's yet to come than a reason for celebration. I noted last night that Romney and Bachmann seemed like the obvious winners, but that was largely because neither one of them was really ever challenged or attacked. That's obviously going to change. I doubt that last night's debate represented some kind of turning point in American campaign civility, after all.

As Tim Murphy points out, the old school version of Michele Bachmann is still around, it was just hidden last night. It's bound to resurface before too much longer and she's bound to take some serious heat for saying something outrageous to one tea party crowd or another. And Romney didn't get hit at all about RomneyCare (in fact, Tim Pawlenty actively resisted an attempt to get him to criticize Romney's healthcare record). That's certainly going to change too, and there's no telling how Romney will react to it.

Basically, last night we got to see how the candidates reacted when the pressure was off and they could just make mini-stump speeches. The fact that Pawlenty couldn't even do that very well doesn't bode well for him. But it's early days, and Pawlenty doesn't have to do well on any absolute scale. All he has to do is do better than the others, and once the attacks start flying there's no telling which candidates will wither under fire. Last night was just a bit of bullpen warmup. The show is yet to begin.