Monday, September 30, 2013

Your Five-Step Guide to Obamacare Week

While the Republican House GOP clown show continues, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, frequently called "Obamacare" will press on, at least in those states that have state-based exchanges.

The basic structure of the Affordable Care Act is fairly simple. To understand how Obamacare will affect you, you need to know the answers to five questions:
  • Are you insured by the government today? If so, then nothing will change. You can stop reading this post and do something more interesting with your life.
  • Does your employer provide insurance? If so, you need to know the answer to a follow-up question: is your employer's insurance good insurance? If it's decent insurance -- no annual or lifetime caps on coverage; reasonable co-pays, deductibles, and coinsurance -- then nothing changes.

    If your employer only offers crappy insurance, they will  need to start providing real insurance. If they don't, you'll go buy your own policy on the exchange. Most employees -- about nine out of every ten -- get decent insurance through their employer. Only one in ten employees will need to lobby their HR department for better insurance coverage.
  • How much does your family earn?

    The handful of middle-to-high income earners -- those making more than 400% of the Federal Poverty Line --  that don't have employer-sponsored insurance will need to go buy it at full price. Thankfully there are not many households like this -- good-paying jobs tend to have good benefits -- and these folks will mostly be able to afford their insurance without too much of a pinch.

    Working-class and middle-income households -- those between 133% and 400% of FPL -- make up the largest group of the uninsured. They'll get some subsidies to purchase insurance at a discount. There are lots of online calculators. My two favorites are Kaiser's Affordable Care Act premium calculator and the state of Vermont's maximum monthly premium table.

    Where the States Stand
    Low-income households need to know the answer to one more question: is your state governed by troglodytes, or by human beings? States governed by human beings (colored teal or blue on this map) will expand Medicaid to cover anyone earning less than 133% of FPL. States governed by troglodytes (colored red or pink) will not cover anyone earning this little money. As a silver lining, subsidies will be available to those earning 100-133% of FPL. So the trick in these states is to be poor, but not too poor.

    Okay, I guess you need to know the answer to one more question. What is 400% of the poverty line? Or perhaps what is 133% of the poverty line? According to, here are the income thresholds for 133% and 400% of FPL:

    Single person: 133% of FPL = $15,281.70 ($1273.48/month); 400% = $45,960 ($3830/month)
    Family of 3: 133% of FPL = $25,974.90 ($2164.58/month); 400% = $77,410 ($6510/month)
    Family of 4: 133% of FPL = $31,321.50 ($2610.13/month); 400% = $94,210 ($7850/month)
I put this together in a handy flowchart, showing what percentage of Americans are currently covered by the government, their employer, buy insurance on the individual market, or go uncovered. The percentages here are approximate, but give you a rough idea of how many people will be helped by Obamacare (click for full-size version)

Good luck!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Republican Debt Ceiling Bluff Is Self-Refuting

Suppose somebody tells you that he really wants your suit of armor. Why? Because he's terrified of getting stabbed. And you don't want to give it to him. So he makes a threat. If you don't give him the armor, he'll get a knife and stab himself!

Now you're in a nice position to call his bluff, because carrying out his threat is inconsistent with what he's told you about his interests. If he's really so terrified of being stabbed, he's not going to stab himself.

And that's the situation Obama is in with regard to Republicans who refuse to raise the debt ceiling. They claim to be concerned with big deficits caused by federal overspending. (They're actually demanding everything in return for debt ceiling increases, including the Keystone Pipeline, barriers to malpractice lawsuits, and partial repeal of the Clean Air Act and banking reform. But they're also asking for cuts in antipoverty programs and Medicare, which are part of the anti-spending agenda.) And the worst-case scenario with overspending is eventual default. But they're threatening to bring default immediately, which nobody actually concerned with overspending would do! There's simply no reason to pay attention to threats like this. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The End of "End Welfare as We Know It"

Via Kevin Drum, Rich Lowry printed this golden nugget from a House GOP aide on the House's attempt to decimate the Food Stamp program [emphasis mine]:
... Yesterday the House passed a major reform to our food stamp program that reinstates the workfare programs that we know are good policy, get people off the welfare rolls and would reduce discretionary spending. ...
Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton years will be surprised at this quote, since one of Bill Clinton's signature campaign issues and legislative achievements was to "end welfare as we know it". But when Clinton said "welfare", he was speaking narrowly of modifications to Aid for Families with Dependent Children, an open-ended transfer to poor single mothers so that they could afford to feed and raise their children. In 1996 Clinton signed a bill replacing AFDC with TANF, a program that limits benefits to five years, encourages welfare recipients to search for work, and provides support to poor families via increased social spending on education, transportation, and child care. Using this definition of welfare, "welfare rolls" have continued to declined. No one has attempted to revive AFDC

So what gives? Why is this random house GOP aide going off about reinstating workfare requirements that were never attached to Food Stamps in the first place? Because modern day conservatives, however, have come to consider "welfare" to mean "any transfer of resources to the poor". During the 2009 stimulus debate, conservatives derided the expansion of low-income tax credits as welfare. Today, food stamps fall into the welfare bucket. Who knows what will be rebranded as welfare next week.

In the short run, there were some real tactical benefits to Clinton's approach. Ending AFDC allowed Democrats to refocus the economic justice debate on a broader set of issues affecting the impoverished, working poor, and working class alike. But in the long run Atrios is right. There is no permanent grand bargain. Someone in power has to be willing to persistently advocate for transfers to the poor, or structure programs so that they attract enough middle-class support that they remain sticky.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Democrats Taught Themselves In The 2008 Primary

While it's a little embarrassing these days to have been a big John Edwards supporter, I'm quite proud of how the Democratic Party taught itself about health care policy in the 2008 primary. We learned that individual mandates were necessary to prevent adverse selection from making insurance unaffordable after you prevent insurance companies from charging people with pre-existing conditions more. It wasn't just a thing a few health policy wonks knew. I heard it from friends of mine at Drinking Liberally and at the philosophy department. They were smart people, but it's not like they had a deep knowledge of health care policy in general. But a grasp on the issues had penetrated so deeply into the party rank-and-file that we generally understood the point of mandates. Obama won the primary, but Hillary (and Edwards) won the debate. So even though mandates look kind of weird at first, Democrats understood them and supported them in Obamacare.

Republicans haven't taught themselves about this, and now the architect of the Congressional Republican health care plan that's supposed to replace Obamacare is promising to regulate against discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, without mandates. Maybe looking into the issue has led Steve Scalise to understand the problem. But even if he understands it, his fellow Republicans certainly don't. That's a bad place to start when you're trying to think up your party's counterproposal.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Don't Blame Generation Y For The Horrible Economy

Some of my friends in academia like this blog post explaining the unhappiness of Generation Y kids in terms of how they think they're special and they're so entitled and they use social media. Who knows? That might be part of the story. But kids with an excessive sense of entitlement have been around since the Joffrey Lannisters of our world were claiming the divine right of kings. And I'm suspicious of explanations in terms of the special properties of social media -- mostly it gives you a new way to do kinds of social interaction that have been around forever. I'm sure explanations involving overly entitled kids resonate with my fellow teachers who are frustrated with students who complain about the bad grades they earned through their own laziness. But I'd like to see some real evidence that this generation is different.

The provable difference between this generation's situation and previous ones is that today's kids are looking for jobs in a terrible economy. Here's the US unemployment rate:
Unemployment got higher in the early 1980s when the Federal Reserve basically created a recession to crush inflation, but it turned around much more sharply when the Fed declared victory and relented. So which recession is worse is sort of a judgment call. The upshot of the chart is that right now we're in one of the two worst recessions since the Great Depression.

If this is bad for people with jobs, who risk being laid off, it's horrible for people trying to enter the job market. Even when unemployment is at 9%, people with jobs mostly get to keep their jobs. But new jobs are really hard to come by, because employers aren't looking to hire. New hiring is much more volatile than retention of old employees. If you're dependent on new hiring (as people coming into the job market are), unemployment over 7% puts you in a dire situation. People of most age groups didn't have to deal with anything like that when they came out.

If you want to make Generation Y cheer up, there's something you can do about it. Well, you can if you're Ben Bernanke or the next chair of the Federal Reserve. Enact monetary policy that creates jobs. Inflation is currently unusually low, at 2%. Getting the Fed to stop worrying about inflation and worry more about the unemployment crisis for new job seekers would be exactly what they need. If this involves printing some new money and giving it to people until they start spending it and creating jobs, I'm for that. Bernanke once said that "The U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at no cost." He should turn it on, and keep it on, until unemployment falls back to typical levels.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Putin And The UN

Vladimir Putin makes a variety of sensible points in his NYT op-ed. Two of the big motivations behind it are (1) to strengthen the UN as an international body through which America operates and (2) to impress Americans. Russia would much rather see the US go through the UN than use other international venues (NATO, for instance) to coordinate foreign policy. Russia has a permanent UN Security Council seat, so its power rises as the UN's power rises. Meanwhile, NATO is an alliance originally set up against the Soviet Union, even if that's become less of a focus in recent years. Putin also wants to look like a reasonable person in front of Americans, so we'll be less likely to oppose him in the future.

I think the op-ed accomplishes both purposes fairly well, though this should do nothing to reduce our opposition to Putin's authoritarianism within Russia, particularly on issues like free speech and gay rights.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria Wouldn't Use Chemical Weapons Again And Betray Russia

Hillary Bok, as hilzoy, was one of the best bloggers in the history of blogging. I like her analysis of why we should accept Russia's proposal to take away Syria's chemical weapons:
Suppose that Syria does not turn over all its chemical weapons. Suppose that Russia knows this. Russia has still staked its credibility, such as it is, on this lie. If Syria uses CW afterwards, it is basically burning its major ally and arms supplier.  
I do not think that Assad would do this. And my reasons for thinking this have nothing at all to do with trusting him.
Here's to hoping the deal works out, and Obama accepts it. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Australia's Upside-Down Election

Australians are headed to the polls today, and from an American perspective, the expected results are completely bizarre. For one, the Labor government has delivered growth 8% real GDP per capita and yet appears headed for a clear defeat. For two, this is the centerpiece of the center-right party's campaign:
His [center-right PM candidate Tony Abbott's] biggest election promise is a more generous paid parental leave scheme, offering mothers up to $75,000 for six months' leave at an annual cost of $5.5bn – a policy deeply unpopular with his party and the business community but which Abbott cites as evidence that he and his party "get" the lives and needs of modern women, despite Gillard's now-famous speech labelling him a misogynist.
Australia has about 1/15th the population, and the Australian dollar is slightly weaker than the US dollar, so this would equate to a $70-76 billion expansion in the US economy. By comparison, Medicare part D cost the government $62 billion. Obviously conservative American politicians can be convinced to enact large expansions of the welfare state, but paid family leave doesn't seem to be on the political agenda at all in this country. This leaves us on a short list with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland of countries that don't offer family leave.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Could We Intervene In Syria Without Killing Any Civilians?

I think there's a way to intervene in Syria that enforces the norm against chemical weapons, and doesn't cause any direct civilian casualties. Moreover, it's the sort of mission that Obama seems to want.

Obama's focus seems to be simply on enforcing the international norm against using chemical weapons. He's not calling for regime change, or trying to win the war for the rebels, or anything like that. All you need to do to sufficiently enforce the norm against chemical weapons is make Assad wish he hadn't let his troops use them. And all you need to do to make him regret that is destroy enough of his high-tech military equipment, like his aircraft.

We could see where airplanes land with military satellites and hit them with bombs or Tomahawk missiles. Or we could find them when they're in the air and shoot them down. Assad can't just hide all his military hardware all the time -- he's in a civil war and he wants to win. So he'll have to expose his military equipment, and then we destroy enough of it to make him wish he hadn't used nerve gas. Alternatively, maybe we announce publicly that we're going to destroy some Syrian military building or the presidential palace, give people time to clear out, and then hit it with long-range missiles.

With that done, we can go home. If destroying a few planes and/or structures isn't enough to topple Assad, that's just fine. That wasn't the mission. Since the objective is so narrow, we can pick our targets as we like, and not attack anything that is likely to cause civilian casualties. The mission is just "Make Assad regret using chemical weapons." Unlike setting up a government we like in Iraq or doing counterinsurgency warfare, that's something the US military is suited to accomplishing.

If I were a Senator, this is the structure of the mission that I'd be interested in supporting. I don't know what shape the mission will eventually take, or whether it'll happen, so I definitely wouldn't commit myself to supporting what we end up doing. But this is a structure with more good consequences than bad, as far as I can see, and it's one that political leaders are now in position to push for.