I got a new camera yesterday. You all know what that means, don't you? Lotsa photos! More on that tomorrow, but in the meantime, enjoy the Great Lizard Hunt of 2017, courtesy of the new camera's burst mode.

Seriously, folks, WTF is going on with the State Department?

The press is not happy:

D.C. bureau chiefs from major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the wire services, Fox News and CNN sent a letter to the State Department earlier this week protesting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's decision to ditch reporters on his upcoming trip to Asia.

...."Not only does this situation leave the public narrative of the meetings up to the Chinese foreign ministry as well as Korea’s and Japan’s, but it gives the American people no window whatsoever into the views and actions of the nation’s leaders."

The American public will get the official narrative, and that's it. The odds are also slim that Tillerson himself will have anything to say about his meetings. He literally hasn't spoken with the press in—what? Weeks? Months? Since the day he was confirmed? A few reporters have gotten desperate to find out what's going on. Here's NBC's Andrea Mitchell several days ago trying to get a few words out of Tillerson:

Here she is trying again a few days later:

Tillerson has fired a big chunk of his management staff. He has no deputy. He won't talk to the press and he won't take them along on foreign trips. He failed to show up for the annual release of the human rights report. He's apparently happy to accept a budget that slashes both the State Department and foreign aid by more than a third. He doesn't get invited to President Trump's meetings with foreign leaders. Hell, the State Department doesn't even know they're happening:

The entire State Department is completely adrift. If it were Trump pulling a stunt like this, we'd chalk it up to some kind of bizarre revenge fantasy festering in his brain. But why is Tillerson doing this? Is he under orders from the White House? Is he too scared to talk to reporters? What the hell is going on here?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in an interview this morning about the border wall:

Brookings has done an analysis of RepubliCare and estimates that it will reduce coverage by at least 15 million people compared to Obamacare, and probably more. Their estimate is based on previous CBO forecasts of the effects of provisions that are in the Republican bill.

My own guess is closer to 20 million. I figure I might as well put my money where my mouth is, so here's how I think the CBO forecast will turn out:

I'm actually being generous here since this forecast assumes the individual insurance market won't implode completely. Will CBO have the guts to make a forecast like this? We'll see next week.

Oh, and premiums will go up a lot too. But that's an estimate for another day.

Wesley Smith has a question about the Republican health care plan:

I am wondering why opponents haven't conceded a big point Speaker Ryan has asserted in defending his three-stage approach: A full repeal would require 60 votes in the Senate because it would be subject to the filibuster…Hence, understanding that the contents of the first phase can be debated, if Obamacare is going to be defanged, doesn't Ryan's three-stage approach make complete sense?

Of course Ryan is right. Everyone should concede that. So why haven't they?

Answer: Because for seven years Republicans have been telling everyone who will listen that if they get into power they'll repeal Obamacare, full stop. They never said "most of it" or "just the parts we can repeal via reconciliation." Just the opposite: They used the most thunderous, uncompromising language possible. Obamacare was a cancer that needed to be fully excised. And they'd do it.

Something on the order of 1 percent of voters understand filibusters and reconciliation, and Republicans were very careful never to mention those things. So that means 99 percent of Republican voters think Obamacare can be fully repealed if only the GOP leadership has the guts to do it. This is now causing problems for Ryan, but he has only himself to blame. He said he'd repeal Obamacare, and now the Republican base wants him to do it. All this yakking about reconciliation and three-phase plans sounds like nothing more than yet another sellout.

Megan McArdle is no fan of Obamacare, but she understands what will happen if Republicans demolish it without putting anything of substance in its place:

The base may rejoice when they hear that Obamacare has been "repealed" (sort of). But their cries of glee will be drowned out by their wailing when they find that they cannot buy individual insurance at all.

That's why I don't understand what Republicans are trying to do with this bill. What do they think will happen after they proudly proclaim that they've repealed Obamacare—followed in short order by the complete implosion of the individual market? Do they really imagine that they will be allowed to leave the rubble-filled lot there and proclaim that they've undone President Obama's mistake? Or that, having watched them destroy the individual market, voters will be eager to let Republicans touch any of the other structures cluttering up America's health-care policy landscape?

I am puzzled by this. As you all know, I agree entirely with McArdle. If you keep the regulations on preexisting conditions—and Republicans have no choice about that—but cripple both the individual mandate and the subsidies, the result is catastrophe. What happens is simple:

  1. Young, healthy people leave the market because they're no longer required to get insurance.
  2. Poor people of good or average health leave the market because they can't afford coverage with only skimpy subsidies.
  3. Even if they have to beg, borrow, or scrimp, sick people will all sign up and insurance companies will be forced to accept them.
  4. With a pool full of expensive, sick people, and not much of anyone else, insurers will lose massive amounts of money.

This is no secret. It's obvious to everyone. And yet, I hear very few people talking about it. Why? Shouldn't insurance companies be yelling at the tops of their lungs? If the Republican bill passes, they'll have only two choices: lose lots of money or abandon the individual market altogether. I'm guessing the latter. Legally, the only way they can avoid having to insure the very sick is to simply stop selling individual coverage. Hell, a public company would probably be opening itself up to lawsuits for breach of fiduciary duty if it didn't abandon the market.

Am I missing something here? Why isn't this the biggest thing people are talking about? Why isn't it on cable news 24/7? Why aren't insurance companies screaming bloody murder? Why is this destruction of the individual market getting so little attention?

UPDATE: Paul Ryan is on TV suggesting that not only is this not a problem, but his bill will make things better. People with preexisting conditions will all be covered by high-risk pools, while everyone else will buy ordinary insurance. This is ridiculous. First, the funding for the high-risk pools is far too small to cover everyone who would need it. Second, how do you force people to use high-risk pools? You can't. Sick people can legally buy from anyone who sells coverage, and they will.

With that taken care of, now Ryan is trying to pretend that advanceable tax credits are different from Obamacare subsidies. What a hack.

DHS Secretary John Kelly announced yesterday that illegal border crossings have plummeted in the past few months:

From January to February, the flow of illegal border crossings as measured by apprehensions and the prevention of inadmissible persons at our southern border dropped by 40 percent. The drop in apprehensions shows a marked change in trends. Since the Administration’s implementation of Executive Orders to enforce immigration laws, apprehensions and inadmissible activity is trending toward the lowest monthly total in at least the last five years.

....This is encouraging news as in the period from Oct 1, 2016 to the Presidential inauguration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 157,000 apprehensions of illegal immigrants — a 35 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, with family units increasing by more than 100 percent. However, since President Trump took office on January 20, we have seen a dramatic drop in numbers.

That's a remarkably partisan statement, but perhaps it's not all that out of the ordinary? In any case, here's a more readable chart than the one CBP provides:

Most of President Trump's routine boasting is groundless, but this is one case where I think he really has had an effect. His policy changes haven't had much impact yet, but the mere fact of his boasting, and of CBP's highly publicized raids, has probably scared a lot of potential border crossers away. This is a case where fear works.

But will it work for long? The problem with amping up the bluster is that eventually it becomes the new normal and no longer has much effect. By that time, you really need to have an effective policy in place, and it's not yet clear if Trump has the attention span or political skills to make that happen. We'll see.

Here are a few miscellaneous things from my afternoon trawl of the news:

Thing the first:

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is in talks with President Donald Trump’s administration about taking an ambassadorship position, according to sources close to the governor. No offer has been extended yet, according to The Star’s sources, but the governor has discussed the possibility of taking a position as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture, a position that would move the Midwestern governor to Rome.

The ambassador for what? There are two takeaways from this: (a) Trump really doesn't want Brownback in his administration, and (b) Brownback really wants to get out of Kansas. His tenure as governor has been a nonstop trainwreck, highlighted by his huge tax cuts for the rich that have tanked the state's economy. There's really no way to fix things without raising taxes, so Brownback just wants to hightail it out of the governor's mansion and leave the problem to somebody else. And hey, Rome is a nice place for an exile.

Thing the second:

Check out this picture of Trump holding a conference in the Oval Office:

Trump is apparently so insecure that he holds every conference from behind his desk, even when it involves seven people. Who does that? In all the pictures I've seen before of presidents, they're out from behind the desk sitting on a chair or a sofa on equal terms with everyone else. But Trump seems to need the desk to remind himself that he's in charge.

Thing the third:

This is just a bit of a ramble that's on my mind. I've been trying to figure out how to respond to the Republican health care plan, but nothing seems quite right. I've written plenty about the details, and so have others, but none of this really gets the true story across.

Here's the thing: anyone with even a cursory knowledge of health care knows that the Republican plan isn't serious. Paul Ryan knows it. Mitch McConnell knows it. Mike Pence knows it. Mick Mulvaney knows it. Everyone knows it. It's just a cynical joke. It will cover virtually no one, and will quite possibly destroy the individual insurance market in the process. Its only purpose is to repeal about $600 billion in taxes on the rich.

This is not really controversial or even very partisan. The plan just doesn't do much of anything for anybody except the rich. But we're all expected to stroke our chins and pretend that it's a serious proposal that should be seriously analyzed. There's something badly wrong about this. Why do we all have to do this?

Friday is jobs day, when the BLS announces how many new jobs were created in February. One of two things will happen:

  • The number will be mediocre, in which case Trump will say we're still living with Obama's job-killing regulations, but don't worry, he's going to take care of that soon. MAGA!
  • The number will be high, in which case Trump will say that in his first month he's already gotten the economy moving again and there's more to come. MAGA!

No matter what happens, Trump is a winner.

UPDATE: Text and headline changed to account for the fact that apparently today isn't Thursday. Sigh.

Over at 538, David Wasserman has an interesting piece about the growing partisan divide in America. In particular, there are hardly any purple counties left:

Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992, even though that election featured a wider national spread. During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties.

But things are actually even more interesting than Wasserman suggests. He illustrates the growing partisan trend with a set of maps from 1992 to 2016, which show the increasing number of landslide counties. But it turns out there's very little change from election to election. In fact, there are only two elections since 1992 which produced a big change:

In years when a Republican is elected, the nation becomes far more polarized. Or, if you prefer, in years when the nation becomes far more polarized, a Republican wins the election. Discuss.