Today brings a couple of pieces of tentative good news for Obamacare. First there's this:

The Trump administration says it is willing to continue paying subsidies to health insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act even though House Republicans say the payments are illegal because Congress never authorized them....The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to reduce deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for certain low-income consumers. The “cost-sharing” subsidies, which total $7 billion a year, compensate insurers for these discounts.

....House Republicans sued the Obama administration, saying that the spending — in the absence of an appropriations law — was unconstitutional. A Federal District Court judge agreed and ordered a halt to the payments, but suspended her order to allow the government to appeal.

This is a huge deal. CSR payments are critical for insurance companies, and the Trump administration could have decided to stop defending the law and let House Republicans kill the payments by default. That could still happen, but it sounds like it won't happen this year, at least. This was the single biggest bit of uncertainty facing insurance companies this year, and this announcement should ease a lot of their short-term concerns.

So with this temporarily out of the way, how does the overall Obamacare market look? According to Standard & Poors, profit levels for insurers are still too low, but they're improving and the market seems to be in pretty good shape:

The U.S. ACA individual market shows signs of improvement, as most insurers' 2016 results were better than 2015 results....2016 results and the market enrollment so far in 2017 show that the ACA individual market is not in a "death spiral."

....We believe the continued pricing correction and network design changes, along with regulatory fine-tuning of ACA rules, will result in closer to break-even underwriting results, on average, for the individual market this year....As insurers continue to adjust their products and pricing, we expect some premium rate increase in 2018 as well. If it remains business as usual, we expect 2018 premiums to increase at a far lower clip than in 2017.

S&P's biggest worry is Congress futzing around with things: "Every time something new (and potentially disruptive) is thrown into the works, it impedes the individual market's path to stability."

Two things are pretty clear. First, contrary to what folks like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan say, the Obamacare market is not on the verge of collapse. It's working pretty well and is likely to get better in the future. But second, Trump and Ryan certainly have the power to put Obamacare on the verge of collapse if that's what they want to do. Now we just have to wait to find out what they want to do.

Health Update

No news is good news, and I've had no news for the past couple of months. My M-protein level remains stable, which means the multiple myeloma is under control for the time being. I saw my oncologist today, and he seemed pretty happy with all my other levels too.

But here's an odd thing. One of the bad side effects of chemotherapy is that it compromises your immune system. I was told early on that the key blood test to keep track of was the absolute level of neutrophils. My first doctor thought that anything under 2000 was dangerous, and put me on a weird diet that I later found out was ridiculous. That's because another doctor told me that, really, anything over 1500 was fine. Later, yet another doctor told me that 1000 marked the danger zone. This month, I was at about 1100, so I asked my oncologist if this was a problem. He said no, everything was OK as long as it stayed above 500.

I'm beginning to think I'm the butt of a very long-winded practical joke. Eventually I'll get down to 550, and some yet newer doctor will tell me not to worry unless it gets below the square root of pi. In the meantime, don't sneeze on me, OK?1

1Not that I'd want you to sneeze on me anyway. This is just some added incentive.

How much was race a factor in the 2016 election? It's pretty obvious that Donald Trump explicitly appealed to racial sentiment more than any Republican presidential candidate in recent memory, but did it work? Did he pick up more votes from resentful, disaffected whites than any other GOP nominee would have?

At first blush, the answer seems to be no. Compared to Mitt Romney, Trump got a smaller share of the white vote and a bigger share of the black and Hispanic vote. That doesn't support the idea that 2016 represented some kind of huge white backlash.

But there are other ways of looking at this. Here's one from Phil Klinkner, a political science professor at Hamilton College. It's taken from the latest release of the American National Election Survey:

This chart is pretty simple: it shows how much correlation there is between a person's level of racial resentment and who they supported for president. In 2000, racial resentment was a weak predictor of who you voted for. In 2016 it was a strong predictor.

But this just adds to the haze. There are two reasonable ways of looking at this:

  1. Racial resentment has been a steadily better predictor of voting behavior for 16 years, with only a slight blip away from the trendline in 2012. Trump just happened to be the nominee in 2016, when it was bound to go up to its present level regardless.
  2. The trendline does inflect modestly upward in 2016. This might be because Obama bent it down a bit in 2012, or it might be because Trump bent it up in 2016.

Klinkner thinks race played a big role in the election. There's no question this is true, but did it play a bigger than expected role? The two major parties have been splitting further apart by race for years, with Republicans becoming the party of whites and Democrats the party of non-whites. This means that to survive with an ever growing white base, Republicans have to cater to white resentment more and more. Likewise, Democrats have to cater to black and Hispanic interests more and more. This is a cycle with positive feedback, so it's only likely to get worse.

Racial attitudes certainly played a bigger role in this election than in the past. But did Trump himself accelerate this partisan trend, or was he merely the beneficiary of it? That still seems like an open question to me.

Today's ABC/Washington Post poll says that 51 percent of Americans support President Trump's missile strikes on Syria. I suppose it could be worse. But Americans also continue to engage in magical thinking. Take a look at this:

So 51 percent of Americans support removing Assad from power, but only 35 percent support military action to remove Assad. I doubt that the 35 percent who favor military force really know what they're getting themselves into, but at least they're consistent. It's the other 16 percent who are curiosities. Just what do they support doing to remove Assad? Asking nicely?

Lunchtime Photo

It's caterpillar season here, and the caterpillars are busily munching away on our milkweed plant. That's good, since it's the only reason we planted one. Soon—if they survive the evil wasps—they will hatch into glorious butterflies. And then, like the delightful but fickle creatures they are, they'll probably fly away to somebody's else's yard.

Have you noticed that everyone is paying less attention to President Trump's tweets lately? I suppose it's finally started to sink in that his tweets are just performance art for his fans, not an indication of any actual policy views. Plus, Trump's tweets have gotten kind of boring. Maybe he lost his appetite for them after his random ejaculation about Obama wiretapping him—which he apparently intended only to distract the press for a day or two—turned into a massive, multi-month debacle for the entire Republican establishment.

Today, though, we got this:

Um, yeah. I'm sure we can count on that great humanitarian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to respond effectively and prudently:

Late Sunday night, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a three-month state of emergency....The army chief-turned-president also dispatched elite troops across the country to protect key installations and accused unidentified countries of fueling instability, saying that “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organizations that tried to control Egypt.”

As always, we're left to wonder why Trump loves el-Sisi so much. Is it because Trump is an unusually brutal foreign policy realist? Because he likes anyone that kicks butt on the Muslim Brotherhood? Because Obama didn't like el-Sisi? Because Netanyahu does? It's all a mystery.

The Associated Press reports today on various rumors making the rounds about President Trump's tax plan, including this one:

One circulating this past week would change the House Republican plan to eliminate much of the payroll tax and cut corporate tax rates. This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security....This approach would give a worker earning $60,000 a year an additional $3,720 in take-home pay, a possible win that lawmakers could highlight back in their districts....Although some billed this as a bipartisan solution, and President Barack Obama did temporarily cut the payroll tax after the Great Recession, others note it probably would run into firm opposition from Democrats who loathe to be seen as undermining Social Security.

Just to be clear: this is pie in the sky, not something that has any real chance of happening. Still, let's go along with the gag. If you wanted my vote for this in return for whatever horrible thing Republicans wanted to do with the rest of the tax code, the easiest way to get it would be to not create a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. Just put the trust fund bonds in a big ol' bonfire and pay for Social Security out of the general fund. This is how we pay for nearly everything else, after all.

If we did this, we could do away with the annual idiocy about Social Security "going bankrupt," which makes about as much sense as the Pentagon going bankrupt. The only reason we say this about Social Security is because it's possible to compare Social Security costs with a specific funding stream. But who cares? Money is money, and if we spend too much it turns into a deficit, regardless of where the money is coming from.

Neither Social Security nor the Pentagon will go bankrupt unless Congress allows it, and Congress will never allow it. So why maintain the charade? Get rid of the regressive dedicated funding stream, fund Social Security from general revenues, and then adjust taxes and/or deficits as necessary to pay for it. This seems to work tolerably well for every other function of government, so why not Social Security?

Now, about Medicare....

I know that the summit meeting with the Chinese premier got overshadowed by the Syria bombing, but I'm still curious: did anything happen at all when Xi and Trump met? I saw nothing. Not even "insider" accounts of what "really" happened between the two men. That's a little odd, isn't it?

K.T. McFarland has always been one of President Trump's odder choices for a senior position on his national security team. She last served in the government during the Reagan administration, and for the past 30 years has done precisely nothing that would make her qualified for even a junior position. Except for one thing: she spent several years as a Fox News commentator, where she regularly savaged Barack Obama and became pals with Eric Trump and Don Jr. Presumably Trump thought that was great experience. Steve Bannon signed on because he doesn't care about anything except whether someone agrees with him, and former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn is such a loony tune that there's no telling why he accepted her as his #2.

But then Flynn got fired, and Trump's first choice to replace him turned down the job when he was told that McFarland had to stay. H.R. McMaster, however, plays a longer game, and took the NSA job even though McFarland came with it. He slowly sidelined her, and now she's being reassigned to the exciting post of ambassador to Singapore. McMaster has been on the job for six weeks, and in that time he's gotten Steve Bannon off the National Security Council; exiled McFarland to Singapore; and masterminded the bombing of Syria, which got Trump a ton of fawning coverage. Not bad for a guy who a few years ago was having trouble even getting the Army to promote him to general.

Here is Doyle McManus today:

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about President Trump’s decision to fire missiles at Syria last week was how oddly traditional he made it sound. As he explained his reasons for military action, our normally unorthodox president borrowed a well-worn list of justifications from his predecessors: United Nations resolutions, international norms, compassion for civilians (in this case, “beautiful babies”), even the proposition that “America stands for justice.”

It was as if the Donald Trump who ran as an America First isolationist had suddenly morphed, once confronted with real-life choices, into an old-fashioned internationalist.

I've read quite a few versions of this, and I don't get it. Sure, Trump ran as an American Firster, but that was mostly related to trade. When it came to military action, he didn't say much, but when he talked about Iraq and Syria his preferred solution was to "bomb the shit out of ISIS." In a primary debate, he suggested he might send 30,000 ground troops to Iraq. He described himself repeatedly as "the most militaristic person you'll ever meet." He wants to increase the Pentagon's budget by $54 billion, and he recently approved a multibillion arms deal for Bahrain. He hasn't yet approved a plan to arm the Kurds, but apparently Kurdish leaders are hopeful that this will change soon.

Donald Trump is no isolationist. He's a standard-issue hawkish, blustering Republican when it comes to war in the Middle East. There was absolutely nothing surprising about his cruise missile display against Syria, and nothing to suggest it represents a policy change of any kind. Why do so many people think otherwise?