June 11, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 5:39 PM


How Obamacare may morph into Medicaid (JB Silvers, 6/11/17, The Conversation)

[I]f their numbers indicate they cannot make a profit, health insurance providers can leave. This is important, since insurers are making broad guesses regarding projected costs and premiums for consumers when they file so early, with little experience to back their decisions.

This year, they have much less certainty regarding the ground rules and subsidies on the exchanges. If they make the reasonable assumption that the government will cut back on their subsidies, as Republicans have indicated they will, the premiums they set now must reflect this additional risk in the future, since insurers will still be legally committed to their filings. Judging from early indications, this additional uncertainty will drive up premiums over 20 percent, although the underlying general increases in health care costs are less than 5 percent.

On top of this, the additional cost sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies under the silver plans are literally being held hostage by the president. A pending court case and President Trump's statements give credibility to the threat of withholding these payments.

The loss of these would require additional premium increases of 19 percent to offset the reduced government support.

These subsidies are critical to the many people buying silver plans since they reduce the average out-of-pocket cost of copays and deductibles radically from the standard 30 percent (i.e., the part not covered by the silver plans) to only 6 percent for the lowest-income people and somewhat higher for those with greater income.

The insurers' dilemma

As a former CEO of an insurance company, I can say that this would create a huge dilemma for me. Premiums must be sufficient to cover likely costs, or I will lose my job!

But I don't know what costs will be, and now I can only guess at what subsidies will be available. So, I must file rates that cover the most extreme possibilities.

The resulting high premiums will be excessive for those not receiving subsidies. These folks most likely will just revert to their former uninsured status.

This will leave only those low-income purchasers whose subsidies under the ACA will automatically rise to offset the higher premiums, leaving the net cost to the working poor the same based on the percentage of their income that is deemed "affordable.". [...]

In any event, the delay and uncertainty, along with predicted reactions of insurers, will guarantee that only low-income working people who are eligible for subsidies will be covered by exchange plans.

Ironically, these are akin to the folks that Medicaid covers now but at a higher level of income than what would qualify for coverage normally. Thus, the result of the impending meltdown of the exchanges may be effectively an extension of Medicaid-type coverage to a greater number of working poor than we have now.

By destroying the initial thrust of the ACA exchanges to give affordable options to everyone regardless of income or health status, we may effectively wind up just extending our current and revamped Medicaid programs for the poor to those with somewhat higher incomes - an ironic result for those bent on reducing Medicaid. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:11 PM


The Amount of Your Compensation Going Toward Benefits Keeps Rising (JOSH ZUMBRUN, Jun 9, 2017, WSJ)

Every month, the Labor Department's jobs report helps shine a light on the growth of overall wages, which has been slow in recent years. But what gets far less attention are the other components of compensation -- health insurance, paid leave, retirement benefits -- that in recent years have generally outpaced wage growth, as shown in new Labor Department data released Friday. [...]

Taking inflation into account, the gap in growth rates between wages and benefits becomes starker. Real wages have grown just 4% in total since 2006, according to this report's measure. Real benefits have grown 12.4% over that period.

Posted by orrinj at 5:08 PM


'Total and Complete Vindication'? No Way. (MAX BOOT, JUNE 9, 2017, Foreign Policy)

The president's Republican defenders act as if the fact that his attempts to quash the Russia probe were unsuccessful somehow exonerates him. But Richard Nixon wasn't successful in obstructing justice, either -- and he was still forced to resign.

Comey has now testified under oath that Trump tried to secure a pledge of "loyalty" from him in return for remaining the FBI director, and that Trump tried to pressure him into "letting Flynn go" while Flynn was under FBI investigation. The cover story of Trump defenders that the president was only offering a nonbinding suggestion won't wash. When the president tells a subordinate he "hopes" that something will occur, that is, in effect, an order -- and Comey interpreted it as such, even if he did not carry it out.

Why wasn't Trump more explicit in ordering Comey to drop the Flynn probe? Because he knew that doing so would be improper. In fact, he knew that even talking to Comey about it was wrong, which is why he cleared the room on Feb. 14 before doing so. Trump clearly hoped that, with a wink and a nudge, he would get the FBI director to drop the investigation into his former national security advisor, who may well have damning information that he could reveal if pressed. (In fact, Flynn has offered to testify in return for immunity.)

Want more evidence of a cover up? The Washington Post reported that Trump asked Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, to pressure Comey to back off the Flynn probe. This request, which Coats and Pompeo do not deny, is all too reminiscent of one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon, who also tried to use the CIA to stop an FBI investigation of executive branch misconduct.

The final and most convincing evidence of obstruction of justice involves Comey's firing on May 9. The reasons Trump initially gave were, as Comey noted, "lies, plain and simple." Initially Trump claimed that he was firing Comey because the FBI was in "disarray" and the director was a "showboat." But within days, Trump admitted to NBC's Lester Holt that the real reason was because he wanted to end the investigation into the "Russia thing." Trump then told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that before he fired Comey ("a real nut job"), "I faced great pressure because of Russia." Now, "that's taken off. I'm not under investigation."

Posted by orrinj at 4:52 PM


The GOP That Failed : The party didn't decide. And now Republicans are stuck with Trump. (JEFF GREENFIELD, June 10, 2017, Politico)

[T]he governing wing of the party was fully aware that Trump was not to be trusted with the levers of power. In January of last year, National Review devoted an entire issue to a symposium where 22 prominent Republicans and conservatives detailed their militant opposition to the candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry--who is now Trump's energy secretary--called "a cancer" on the American political system. Until his nomination was all but assured, Trump had the backing of a lone Republican senator, Sessions (who is now his embattled attorney general).

More broadly, the whole idea of a disparate party coming together at a convention was, for decades, rooted in the "vetting" process; those experienced in the mechanics of politics and governments would decide which of the candidates were best equipped to win an election and carry out the party's agenda in Washington. It's beyond obvious that in the decades since primaries replaced power brokers as the delegate-selecting process, this role has attenuated. But it survives today as an "In-Case-Of-Emergency-Break-Glass" tool. And the question is: Why didn't the Republican Party employ it?

Explanations have ranged from the fragmented nature of the opposition--no early consensus choice as with George W. Bush in 2000--to the underestimation of Trump's appeal (the establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Christie spent their time and money attacking each other, while Ted Cruz was constantly praising Trump, hoping to ride in his wake when he collapsed).

But one often overlooked reason--and one for parties to remember if they hope to avoid future Trumps--is that the rules of the GOP greatly benefited Trump. The party allows winner-take-all primaries by congressional district or statewide-- which, in many states, hugely magnified Trump's delegate totals. Trump won 32 percent of the South Carolina vote but all 50 delegates. He won 46 percent of the Florida vote but all 99 delegates. He won 39 percent of the Illinois vote, but 80 percent of the 69 delegates. By contrast, Democrats--who abolished winner-take-all primaries more than 40 years ago, insist on a proportional system, much like parents cut the cake at a children's birthday party. The result is that an intensely motivated minority cannot seize the lion's share of delegates.

Another rule may well have stayed the hand of Republicans who saw in Trump an unacceptable nominee. The Democratic Party gives more than 700 people seats as "superdelegates." Every senator, every House member, every governor and a regiment of party officials are, by rule, unbound. They make up 15 percent of the total votes at the convention. Republicans only have some 150 "automatic" delegates--7 percent of the total--and they must vote the way their state's primary voters did. Thus, the whole idea of an emergency brake is almost nonexistent in the GOP.

Democrats were scared into adding superdelegates by the nomination of George McGovern and his electoral performance. But thanks to Hillary, Donald is president. 

Posted by orrinj at 1:03 PM


Trump lawyer refuses to rule out firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller (Bonnie Christian, 6/11/17, The Week)
Attorney Jay Sekulow, a member of President Trump's legal team, on Sunday refused to rule out the possibility of the president attempting to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the probe into possible collusion between the Trump team and Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

There's no difference between firing Comey and firing Archibald Cox.

Posted by orrinj at 9:07 AM



Erik Hoel, a 29-year-old theoretical neuroscientist and writer, quoted the passage in a recent essay in which he laid out his new mathematical explanation of how consciousness and agency arise. The existence of agents--beings with intentions and goal-oriented behavior--has long seemed profoundly at odds with the reductionist assumption that all behavior arises from mechanistic interactions between particles. Agency doesn't exist among the atoms, and so reductionism suggests agents don't exist at all: that Romeo's desires and psychological states are not the real causes of his actions, but merely approximate the unknowably complicated causes and effects between the atoms in his brain and surroundings.

Hoel's theory, called "causal emergence," roundly rejects this reductionist assumption.

"Causal emergence is a way of claiming that your agent description is really real," said Hoel, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University who first proposed the idea with Larissa Albantakis and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "If you just say something like, 'Oh, my atoms made me do it'--well, that might not be true. And it might be provably not true." [...]

Hoel and collaborators have been developing the mathematics behind their idea since 2013. In a May paper in the journal Entropy, Hoel placed causal emergence on a firmer theoretical footing by showing that macro scales gain causal power in exactly the same way, mathematically, that error-correcting codes increase the amount of information that can be sent over information channels. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:04 AM


Fixed Mortgage Rates Are Stuck in Long Slide (Kathy Orton, 6/11/17, The Washington Post)

According to the latest data released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate average sank to 3.89 percent with an average 0.5 point. (Points are fees paid to a lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount.) It was 3.94 percent the previous week and 3.6 percent a year ago. The 30-year fixed rate has fallen 16 basis points in the past month. (A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.)

The 15-year fixed-rate average dropped to 3.16 percent with an average 0.5 point. It was 3.19 percent the previous week and 2.87 percent a year ago. The five-year adjustable rate average remained the same, at 3.11 percent. It was 2.82 percent a year ago.

Mortgage rates tend to follow the path of long-term bond yields. As investors buy up bonds, sending prices higher, that drives yields down.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury plunged to a seven-month low last week, slumping to 2.14 percent Tuesday. In less than three months, it has dropped 46 basis points from its peak this year at 2.6 percent.

Ironically, while we're saving ourselves from Donald's economic ignorance, the Fed could deep-six the economy anyway.

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 AM


The Worst Thing That Happened to Donald Trump this Week (Paul Rosenzweig, June 9, 2017, Lawfare)

What's the worst thing that happened to Donald Trump this week?  It was NOT Director Comey's testimony.  Rather, it must be the late Friday news that Robert Mueller has hired Michael Dreeben, on a part-time basis, to help with his investigation.  Dreeben, a deputy in the Office of the Solicitor General, has argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court. [...] [H]e is quite possibly the best criminal appellate lawyer in America (at least on the government's side).  

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


Iran delivers food to Qatar amid concerns of shortages (Deutsche-Welle, 6/11/17)

Five Iranian cargo planes arrived in Doha on Sunday with food supplies as sanctions placed by the neighboring Gulf states have started to hurt Qatar.

"So far five planes carrying ... vegetables have been sent to Qatar, each carrying around 90 tones of cargo, while another plane will be sent today," Iran Air spokesman Shahrokh Noushabadi said.

"We will continue deliveries as long as there is demand" from Qatar, Noushabadi added.

It's a struggle between supporters of self-determination and authoritarians.

Qatari FM: For Arabs, Hamas is a resistance movement (Al Jazeera, 6/11/17)

"The US views Hamas as a terror organisation. But to the rest of the Arab nations, it is a legitimate resistance movement. We do not support Hamas, we support the Palestinian people," [Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani] said.

Hamas is the Palestinian group that has governed Gaza since 2007. The small strip of land, home to nearly two million Palestinians, has been under a crippling Israeli blockade for a decade.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Qatar must end its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood before ties with other Arab Gulf states could be restored.

Jubeir added that Qatar was undermining the Palestinian Authority and Egypt in its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Posted by orrinj at 8:45 AM


Donald Trump's state visit to Britain put on hold (Patrick Wintour, 11 June 2017, The Guardian)

Donald Trump has told Theresa May in a phone call he does not want to go ahead with a state visit to Britain until the British public supports him coming.

The US president said he did not want to come if there were large-scale protests and his remarks in effect put the visit on hold for some time.

Good trivia question : who is the only other president not to meet Queen Elizabeth during her reign? (Hint : It's not who you think--he met her here on a state visit, though he never made it there.)

Posted by orrinj at 8:28 AM


The Power of Inertia: More Workers Save in Their 401(k) (Stan Choe, 6/11/17, AP)

 Here's a look at some of the trends found from Vanguard's survey, up and down:

Workers are more likely to be saving.

Across Vanguard's plans, 79 percent of all workers eligible to save in a 401(k), 403(b) or similar account are doing so. That's up from 68 percent a decade ago, and a big reason for it is that workers are getting a more forceful push to do so.

Nearly half of employer plans, 45 percent, sign their workers up automatically for the retirement plan. That's triple the rate from 10 years ago. Workers still have the choice to opt out, but requiring that extra step means more end up saving, and it's another example of trying to use inertia to help. Only 10 percent of workers in plans with automatic enrollment aren't participating, versus 37 percent at plans where signing up is voluntary.

Most typically, employers are enrolling workers to contribute 3 percent of their pay. Not only that, many have also set their programs to automatically raise workers' savings rates each year. Most increase contributions by 1 percentage point, most typically up to a cap of 10 percent.

Lower-income workers are seeing the biggest participation increase.

Workers pulling down big paychecks have always been the most likely to save in a 401(k). More than 90 percent of workers making $100,000 or above participated in their plan last year, the same as it's been through the past decade.

The story hasn't been so good for lower-income workers, who likely feel less comfortable diverting some of their paycheck. A decade ago, for example, only 45 percent of workers making less than $30,000 annually participated in their plan. That was less than half the rate of the highest-paid workers.

But the participation rate for lower-income workers has been steadily climbing in recent years, and hit an estimated 65 percent last year. So while they still participate less often, the gap between how much lower-income workers participate and how much other groups do is narrowing.

Younger workers are also more likely to save than before.

Odds are only slightly better than a coin flip that a young employee under the age of 25 is setting aside some pay in a 401(k) or similar plan. Last year, an estimated 54 percent of such eligible workers were doing so. But that's a much higher rate than a decade ago, when only 38 percent of them were.

Just create a 401k-type account for every newborn and put $10k a year in them through age 18, invested in retirement date mutual funds.  Let individuals and employers contribute directly to the accounts.  Make them--and all currently existing retirement accounts--heritable, but only directly into other individual accounts.  Then means-test all governmental retirement benefits. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 AM


Cultural appropriation: A modest proposal (Michael Barone, May 4, 2017, Washington Examiner)

Attentive readers will notice that "culture" is a euphemism. The objection is not to participating in a culture but to doing so when you're not of the right genetic ancestry. Usually that's a group currently regarded as subject to discrimination or derogatory slurs. But there is a certain historical myopia at work here. Other groups have also suffered from discrimination and ridicule over long periods of American history, and still are in some quarters. Shouldn't they be included?

Take one of which I am a member, Italian-Americans. The National Italian American Foundation estimates our numbers, based on Census and other data, at around 16 or 17 million, 5 percent of the nation's population. NIAF celebrates their achievements and welcomes others to join in. The first time that all four major-party nominees for president and vice-president appeared on the same stage was at NIAF's 1984 annual dinner -- though only one of them had Italian ancestry.

But what if Italian-Americans started objecting to cultural appropriation? By, for example, complaining that Americans of non-Italian descent were appropriating Italian culture by consuming pizza and pasta?

The logical corollary would be to stamp out this hijacking of cultural heritage. At school lunchrooms, pupils would be required to show proof of Italian ancestry being getting a pizza slice. Supermarket checkout counters would require similar proof from putative pasta purchasers. Similarly for paninis at Panera Bread, chicken parmesan at Olive Garden, etc.

If appropriation of one culture is wrong, then appropriation of any culture is wrong. Isn't it? [...]

Actually, American history is the story of one cultural appropriation after another, from English law to Thai cuisine, to our great mutual benefit. You shouldn't have to submit a DNA sample to partake.

...or their parents at a supermarket...