The HHS 6% Error Is No Big Deal

We Heart ObamacareWhy is it that whenever discussing Obamacare, I feel like I’m in a fight with a creationist? This was well spoofed in an episode of Futurama, where it really doesn’t matter how many transitional fossils science finds, creationists will always be there to point and say, “Aha! What about the transition between Homo rhodesiensis and Homo sapiens?!” But whereas creationists are largely considered freaks, not welcome on sane television, their closely related cousins the Obamacare denies are considered quite respectable.

Just like the creationists, the Obamacare denialists will always have another reason why the healthcare reform law is evil and unworkable and whatever other pejorative they can come up with. Jonathan Chait pointed this out earlier this year about Reason Magazine‘s Peter Suderman, Libertarian Accidentally Shows How Obamacare Is Succeeding. In the article, Chait chronicled how Suderman would publish an article that claimed Obamacare wasn’t going to work for reason X, only to follow it up with a later article where he admitted that reason X didn’t come to pass, but that Obamacare wouldn’t work because of reason Y. And so on. Chait summed it up with his usual style:

We have gone from learning that the law has failed to cover anybody to learning it would cover a couple million to learning it would cover a few million to learning that it has probably insured fewer than 20 million people halfway through year one. The message of every individual dispatch is a confident prediction of the hated enemy’s demise, yet the terms described in each, taken together, tell the story of retreat. The enemy’s invasion fleet has been destroyed; its huge losses on the field of battle have left it on the brink of surrender; the enemy soldiers will be slaughtered by our brave civilian defenders as they attempt to enter the capital; the resistance will triumph!

This is why the most recent Obamacare outrage is so pathetic. The news is minor, Obamacare Sign-Ups Were Inflated With Dental Plans. The Department of Health and Human Services got screwed up and included 400,000 dental plan sign-ups in their figures for the number of people signing up for Obamacare. So instead of just over 7 million new sign-ups, it will be 6.7 million. This is causing conservatives to complaining the the administration did this on purpose because apparently the 7 million figure is really important to them.

Of course, the critics would have to say that. If they didn’t, they would have to explain why it is that the administration is lying so little. Why not goose the number by a million or two? It doesn’t really matter. Any negative news about Obamacare will be trumped up as proof that the law is evil and unworkable and whatever other pejorative they can come up with.

What I don’t understand is why supporters of the law would pretend that this error was a big deal. Today, the very smart and reasonable Jonathan Cohn wrote, The Government Overstated Obamacare Enrollment by 400,000 People. That’s Inexcusable. Really?! A 6% error that was caught by the government itself only a month after it was made is an “inexcusable” error? This is part of the problem with liberals: we are in such a rush to be so squeaky clean that we push anti-government narratives like this.

An administration screw-up that only affected the monitoring of a program and not the program itself is not an “inexcusable” error. That word should be applied to things like the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. That actually cost human lives. That’s inexcusable! People make mistakes all the time. Other than giving Republicans yet another talking point, the 6% error had no negative consequences.

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Government Shutdown Unlikely to Hurt Republicans

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman wrote a good article yesterday, How Republicans Are Learning to Love the Shutdown. He isn’t alone: a lot of people have been reporting about the increasing zeal that the Republican Party has for shutting down the government. Right now they are talking about doing it over the president’s expected announcement of executive action on immigration. But it doesn’t much matter; they have increasing zeal for shutdowns, breaching debt ceilings, and impeachment. They’re Republicans!

What no one seems to be discussing is why this is. I’m afraid that this was always going to happen. The only question is whether the Republican leadership can somehow divert this trend. The way it works this is. When the Democrats had complete control in Washington, the Republican position was quite rightly, “So what?! We’re still going to fight you with everything we have.” But when the Republicans gained control of the House, the Republican response was, “We won the last election: now you have to do everything we say!” The leadership had to point out that this was not, in fact, how things worked. The Republicans only won one chamber of Congress. They didn’t have the Senate and they didn’t have the White House.

Now that the Republicans have won both chambers of Congress — but before actually getting into power — the base is again acting out like children, “Can we do everything we want now?!” Although this behavior is typical of conservatives, it doesn’t only affect them. Whenever a court overrules some democratically approved law, people normally complain, “But it’s what the people want!” I have to remind them that 51% of the people might want to enslave the other 49%, but that hardly makes right.

The question now is whether the Republican leadership will be able to quiet the masses. It’s actually kind of hard. When they had the House from 2011-2012, the Republicans didn’t shut down the government. The leadership could rightly argue that if the new Republican Representatives were good little boys (and a tiny smattering of girls), they would have the White House in short order and all their dreams would come true. That’s why we did get the shutdown in 2013. I question whether “We’ll win the White House in 2016!” will be all that compelling an argument.

Right now, the Republicans are making the argument that the last time they shut down the government, it didn’t hurt them. In fact, it might have helped them, by causing liberal and moderate voters to just give up on democracy. These people are forgetting an important point, of course. The 2013 government shutdown hurt the Republicans enormously at the time. But they were saved by the website debacle that was all anyone was talking about as soon as the shutdown was ended. By January, everyone had forgotten about what the Republicans had done and were still thinking that the government couldn’t do anything right, as was clear thanks to the Obamacare website. I don’t think they are going to have that good fortune again.

Just the same, as long as the Republicans don’t shut down the government within three months of the next election, I wonder how much it would matter. The truth is that Americans don’t much pay attention to politics. A September poll found that over 40% of Americans said they didn’t know which party controlled the House and the Senate. And that doesn’t even include the ones who said they knew but were wrong. Although 38% knew that Democrats controlled the Senate, 20% said the Republicans did.

Given all this, it is amazing that Americans blame the Republicans for shutting down the government even at the time. They certainly aren’t going to blame the Republicans a year later. And as I indicated, in the long run, Republicans are probably helped by government shutdowns. It is a great way to push their philosophy that the government is incompetent. That not only increases the number of conservatives who show up to vote, it decreases the number of liberals who bother to vote.

So I won’t be cheering if the Republicans shutdown the government. The harm done to the people of the United States will be for nothing. And the best outcome will be that it will have no effect at all in 2016. And it might result in the people deciding that the way to get things done in Washington is to put the people who have obstructed for the previous eight years into power. Because Americans are just brilliant at that kind of anti-logic.

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Indy Mike Works for Republicans From “Center”

Sam SederThis morning while making breakfast, I was listening to part of Sam Seder on Majority Report. He was talking to “Indy Mike” — a guy I had heard mentioned in the past but didn’t know anything about. He was talking about how Obama shouldn’t take executive action on immigration reform. Instead, he should use the new Republican controlled Congress to make a deal with the Republicans. And if that didn’t work, well, everyone would know that the Republicans are just unreasonable.

It was one of those instances where I’m in the kitchen shouting at inanimate objects. Seder patiently explained multiple times that Obama had done exactly this five months ago when he announced that if the Republicans in the House wouldn’t do anything, he would. And Seder noted that the Senate had passed a draconian immigration bill that Boehner has always refused to bring up for a vote. What was entirely typical of Indy Mike is that he didn’t seem to know this history. As usual for such a “centrist,” he was calling for Obama to do what Obama has already done. And then he claims that Obama will get credit for being the “adult in the room,” even as he shows that he has given Obama no credit whatsoever for being the adult in the room previously. In fact, Indy Mike didn’t even seem to know that Obama had been the adult in the room over and over again.

Later, after Indy Mike went on his merry, Seder speculated about an alternate universe. Suppose that Indy Mike had not made his public announcement that Obama should try to make a deal now and wait until next February to do anything. Further, suppose that Obama went on television tonight and did exactly what Indy Mike thinks he should do (what Obama did do five months ago). In February, after it was clear that the Republicans were not going to do anything regarding immigration reform, Indy Mike would say exactly what he said today: Obama should offer to work with the Republicans and only take executive action later. Tomorrow, tomorrow! You’re always a day away!

When Seder countered that Obama had lately done exactly as requested, Indy Mike fell into a kind of No True Scotsman fallacy. Sure, Obama may have done what Indy Mike wanted, but he didn’t really do it. He wasn’t effective doing it. He didn’t publicize it enough. What this allows is for supposed centrists like Indy Mike to constantly move the goal posts. And that is because they aren’t actually interested in the policy. But that doesn’t mean that they are interested in process either.

Based upon things said after Indy Mike left, I got the impression that Indy Mike is independent in the sense that my father is; that is to say that he is just a conservative. The “middle ground” is a nice spot of ground to stake out if you are a conservative who doesn’t want to be seen as a conservative. You can claim to be reasonable and not partisan, when what you really want is for nothing to get done. If a deal ever becomes a real possibility, you can just join your friends on the right at that time.

The net effect of this kind of “third way” rhetoric is to allow Republicans to get a pass. Over the past 40 years, we have seen the Democratic Party move steadily to the right to the point where they are no longer even liberal on economic policy. The Republicans, meanwhile, have gone off the ideological cliff. But according to Indy Mike, it is still Obama who should be doing everything he can to get along with the Republicans. Even if the two parties were at the same place as they were in 1972, it would not follow that the Democrats should always be expected to be the “adults in the room.”

What’s more, listening to Indy Mike, the Republicans and Democrats are only equally to blame when Sam Seder asks that question explicitly. Otherwise, it is always the Democrats who are discussed. This is a kind of Marxist concept applied to modern American politics: each according to his gifts. Since we all know that the Republicans are unreasonable, we can’t expect anything from them. And the more unreasonable they become, the less the self-described centrists will ask of them. The “third way” crowd like Indy Mike are the best propagandists that the Republican Party ever had.

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Jimmy Ruffin: Not Just David’s Brother

Jimmy RuffinThe great soul singer Jimmy Ruffin died on Monday at the age of 78. He is best known for the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” which we will listen to shortly. I just wanted to mention that the obituaries for him have bugged me. He was the older brother of David Ruffin, lead singer for The Temptations in the mid-1960s when they had hits like “My Girl.” But Jimmy Ruffin was a major talent in his own right. What does a man have to do to get a little respect?

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that his career was focused on the United Kingdom. And you know Americans: if it doesn’t happen here, it never happened at all. Still Ruffin had two top-10 hits here. And “Brokenhearted” is one of those songs that was a lot bigger than its chart placement would indicate. I always thought it was a number one hit, but it only made it to number seven.

Ruffin had been very sick for at least the last month, but he had been performing until quite recently. He left us with a career that spanned seven decades, a dozen albums, and countless singles.

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Duane Allman

Duane AllmanOn this day in 1946, the great guitarist Duane Allman was born. I can’t think of anyone who plays rock even as good, much less better. Most people think Hendrix was better, but it is hard to see that. I think that is because of what Hendrix did regarding the sound of the guitar. In terms of what he played, it was mostly pretty standard blues. Allman was pushing the envelope of what rock guitar was. It was still mostly blues, but it was a whole lot more. It is sad that we missed out on his evolution. He died in a motorcycle accident when he was only 24 years old.

He worked as a session musician for years, where he had a profound influence — working with people like Boz Scaggs, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin. He is probably best known for his guitar work on Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” He’s the one who created the guitar riff, which is about the only thing people remember on the song. He and Clapton shared guitar on the song with countless overdubs. But all the slide guitar was Allman.

Allman teamed up with his younger brother Gregg and a number of other great musicians to form The Allman Brothers. The three albums they released while Duane was still alive are all classics. They are more standard blues rock, but this isn’t Savoy Brown — as good as they are. And live, they are really something special. I’m having some difficulty finding really good live video, so here is “Whipping Post” from 1970 at Fillmore East (not the concert their third album was drawn from):

Happy birthday Duane Allman!

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“Twice As Good” Is a Racist Concept

Ta-Nehisi CoatesI just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Cosby Show. In it, he discussed a long reported piece he wrote back in 2008 when he followed Bill Cosby around the nation on one of his hectoring tours to tell the African American community that their problems were all their own fault. This is what Coates refers to as “respectability politics”; I wrote about it in another article recently, The Failure of Respectability Politics. But I was struck by a phrase he used in today’s article, “Twice as good.”

The idea of the phrase is that African Americans — or any oppressed group — have to be twice as good as white majority. And if they are, then the white majority will accept them, “Kumbaya” will be sung, and all will be good in the land of the free. The major problem with this is that it is a fantasy. It treats racism, and power politics more generally, as though it were rational. But it isn’t. The colonists didn’t start slavery based on skin color because they saw that dark skinned people behaved badly. And so the idea that hundreds of years of white privilege will be wiped away by African Americans being “twice as good” is just outrageous.

Consider one of my favorite examples: the guy who cut you off. Suppose you hate Latinos. If you are driving and a white guy cuts you off, he’s just a jerk. But if it is a Latino, well, isn’t that entirely typical of Latinos — they just don’t know how to behave! Now if a Latino stops to allow you to merge into traffic, well, that’s the exception. In general, Latinos are the last people do that! Racism is a system of confirmation biases. It simply exists and whatever data is available will be used to justify it.

So unless the African American community can be perfect — which is impossible — there will always be blacks for whites to point at and say, “Isn’t that typical of blacks!” And it doesn’t matter in the least how untypical of blacks “that” might be. And it certainly doesn’t matter how many “twice as good” blacks are there as a counter example.

Part of the problem is that successful and “morally pure” blacks become, at best, a kind of subset. Whites can think, “Blacks are terrible, but there are those special blacks that break the mold.” And all that means is that any given African American is presumed guilty until he is shown to be one of those “good” blacks. So the whole idea behind “twice as good” is racist — it is built upon the same toxic idea as white privilege is.

The fundamental issue is why African Americans have to be twice as good. In White Like Me, Tim Wise spends a lot of time talking about how many chances he has received in life. Is there any definition of fairness that includes countless do-overs for a white man and zero for a black man? Telling a young African American to be “twice as good” is not necessarily a bad idea. He does live in a racist society and he will be held to a far higher standard. But to tell the African American community the same thing is madness. It isn’t the solution to racism; it is just more of it.

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It Was Probably Best for Dems to Filibuster Pipeline

Keystone XL PipelineI was very disappointed last night when I saw the headline, Senate Defeats Bill on Keystone XL Pipeline in Narrow Vote. For one thing, that headline is misleading. What actually happened was that supporters didn’t get 60 votes to override a filibuster. And I don’t like the filibuster being de rigueur — used on every conceivable piece of legislation. The Democrats could have used the occasion to show that they are better than the Republicans.

Now I understand: it would be pointless. The Democrats could go back to using the filibuster sparingly, and the moment the Republicans were back in the minority, they would use it on all bills short of the naming of post offices. What’s more, you can bet that the Very Serious Pundits would give the Democrats no credit for the act of restraint. I can well imagine a Republican White House and Senate in 2017 destroying the filibuster as the pundits looked on and said, “Well, what do you expect after Harry Reid used the nuclear option?!”

But that’s just an indication of the terrible state of the media today and the crazy state of the Republicans. What I would prefer to see is the Democrats setting a better tone when it doesn’t cost them anything. As it is, Obama spent four years trying to set a better tone when it very much cost the Democrats something. I’m not sure that is the case today.

It might have been a bad move, however. There are two ways that the media could have covered the vote. They could have covered it in the correct way, “In an Effort to Normalize Senate Procedure, Democrats Decline to Filibuster Republican Bill.” That would be great. But it is more likely that it would have been covered in a totally disingenuous way, “Republicans Pass Bill as Democrats Yield to Election Landslide.”

But I don’t think this is why the Democrats decided to filibuster. It is primarily just because this is now the way that business is done in the Senate. (This is also why I think the filibuster is not long for this world.) But I suspect that Obama did not want to be in the position of vetoing the bill at this time. Of course, I have to wonder why this is. Even if he wants to eventually approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, vetoing it at this time wouldn’t hurt his ability to do that.

Of course, I think the pipeline is and always has been a really bad idea. It isn’t even an American thing. It is just a way for Canada to get its tar sands to market more quickly. It is going to employ very few Americans. The reason that conservatives want it is because it will make some already rich people even richer. But Robert Bryce reported in The Daily Beast today, Why the Keystone XL Pipeline May Not Be Built. The cost estimates of the pipeline have gone way up and now that gas prices are way down, it makes much less — and possibly no — economic sense. So we likely won’t see the pipeline not because it is a bad idea for the environment and the American worker, but because it isn’t going to do what it was always intended to do: enrich the rich.

So the Democrats lost the chance to send a message. But is it really a message if the media doesn’t cover it? I would have liked receiving the message. But it wouldn’t have been worth it if the mainstream media had covered it as a win for Republicans rather than a noble statement by Democrats. And knowing the media, they probably would have reported it as reflecting Republican power rather than Democratic reasonableness.

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Infantilized America Good for Power Elite

Stupid AmericanJon Gruber referred to the “stupidity of the American voter” and people went crazy. And why did they go crazy? Because they are stupid. I’m not being flip. It is one thing for people who live in extreme poverty to freak out about everything. But the United States is a rich country. Yet we respond to threats in the most immature way imaginable.

On Monday, Gallup released a poll that found, Ebola Ranks Among Americans’ Top Three Healthcare Concerns. The asked, “What would you say is the most urgent health problem facing this country at the present time?” And 17% of Americans said, “Ebola!”

Perhaps we should be happy that it wasn’t the number one “most urgent health problem.” It was below (Barely!) healthcare cost and healthcare availability. But the comparison to last year is interesting. Last year fewer people were concerned about availability. I figure this is the Fox News effect where people are certain that Obamacare has made healthcare less available. But fewer people are concerned about healthcare costs, so that’s progress: the American people actually have an opinion based upon fact!

And what about last year? How concerned were Americans that Ebola was the “most urgent health problem” in America? Well, it didn’t show up on the list. And why would it? No one had told them that death could be imported at any time from the “dark continent.” Let me add something new that I hope will show up on the list next year: hippopotamuses. They are responsible for about 3,000 human deaths per year. I don’t know why Fox News is not asking the obvious question, “Are people flying in from Africa being checked for hippos?!”

What’s more, the 18th leading cause of death is: falling out of bed. But most likely, you are going to die of cancer (1 in 7 chance) or heart disease (1 in 6 chance). Americans are quite concerned about cancer: 10% consider it the most urgent problem. But only 2% consider heart disease most urgent. I wonder why that is? Oh, that’s right: Americans are stupid.

I understand that fear of particular kinds of death are more frightening than others. For example, I have a great fear of burning to death, even though the chances of that happening are really slim. But Ebola isn’t really like that. I think the national freak out about Ebola is based on two things. One is pure racism: it comes from the “dark continent” and what little Americans know about it is a vague notion based upon watching Zulu in high school.

The more important aspect of The Great Ebola Freak Out of 2014 is that a Democrat is in the White House. If Romney were president, the handful of cases and the one death would have been reported in a more neutral way. But since not only was a Democrat in the White House but a Democrat who many on the right still believe is an usurper born on the “dark continent,” the coverage was more along the lines of America’s purity being contaminated.

Most rich economies have reasonably mature people. But I think the high level of inequality in the United States causes us to be stunted. I think those in power can easily manipulate the populace to infantilize them. The last thing they want is a mature electorate looking out at our largely dysfunctional political system and doing something about it. Much better to drive people to the polls because they are terrified about Ebola. Few things work better to keep the power elite in control.

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How to Raise Middle Class Wages

Lawrence MishelIt is a positive thing that the beltway crowd is starting to talk about wages. After all, the paper we released at the launch of our Raising America’s Pay initiative was titled “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge.” Wages are central for the simple reason that the vast middle class, as well as low-income households, rely primarily on their wage income to support their spending. And policies can restore wage growth. Let us start with Federal Reserve policy assuring a strong jobs recovery that gets unemployment down to where real wages grow at least as fast as productivity growth (which means nominal wage growth at least 3.5 to 4.0 percent). Large scale infrastructure spending would be wise as well. Yes, President Obama should allow millions of undocumented workers to work legally, thereby eliminating their vulnerability to exploitation and consequently raising their wages, which would then lift up other workers’ wages as well. Low wage workers (the bottom fifth) earn less than they did in 1968 despite a doubling of productivity and far more education simply because we have failed to adequately increase the minimum wage. We can end wage theft, raise overtime eligibility for six million workers, and end the misclassification of employees into independent contractors. We can use federal legislation to restore collective bargaining for those who want it and we can oppose the actions in the states that have weakened collective bargaining, initiatives that are expected to continue this year. And why do we need new global trade agreements that will serve to put more downward pressure on wages? (I don’t see any effort of the “winners compensating the losers” from trade.) Most of all, economic policy should take creating good jobs and lifting wages as its central concern. This is not what happened in the four decades of “flexible, innovative, American-style capitalism” that the Washington Post looks so kindly toward.

—Lawrence Mishel
Washington Post “Wage Freeze” Brain Freeze
[See article for lots of links. -FM]

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Charlie Kaufman

Charlie KaufmanThe great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is 56 years old today. But is he really “great”?! I’m open to the argument that he isn’t. Maybe he is just good and basically every other screenwriter in Hollywood is a hack. Or maybe it is that he is almost the only screenwriter who is allowed to write anything interesting. Regardless, his work is remarkable.

I don’t want to put this too broadly. There are great screenwriters. Three off the top of my head: Woody Allen, Paul Schrader, and Tony Gilroy. But Kaufman’s work is distinctly expansive of the format in ways that simply aren’t the case with Quentin Tarantino or Robert Towne or Paddy Chayefsky. He has a novelist’s view of the screenplay, but the novelist is more Kafka than Hemingway.

It is hard to appreciate Kaufman in small video clips, but I’m going to try. Let’s start with Being John Malkovich. Here is the introduction to the 7½ floor. It strikes me as quite a lot like Eugène Ionesco, although the film later panders a tad to external reality:

There is much good to say about Human Nature, even if it doesn’t fully work. But I can’t find any clips of it. So we will move on to Adaptation. It is a marvel of meta-art — a vicious attack and loving embrace of genre writing. But it still has this affecting scene in the middle of a totally ridiculous sequence:

Let’s skip by Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which I like quite a lot, because I think it had Kaufman’s soul ripped out of it. So we move to one of my very favorite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It really is the cinematic equivalent of Crime and Punishment. And it is the best directing that Kaufman has ever received, which is interesting given that I don’t think much of Michel Gondry as a director. “Meet me in Montauk…”

Then there is Synecdoche, New York — a film so deep it gets lost inside itself. I think of it as “Charlie Kaufman does MC Escher!” It was the first time he directed, and he does have a distinctive style. But it seems very much like a director who has waited fifty years to direct. The density of the film is overpowering. It isn’t at all surprising that the film was a commercial failure. But it is an amazing film. And visually, it reminds me of the photo realist Scott Prior, who I believe was greatly influenced by Edward Hopper. Check out this scene with its world within a world:

And then nothing. Well, apparently he wrote and directed a television pilot, How and Why. But it isn’t going to be picked up. There’s a shock. And maybe this is it. Kaufman is honest enough to admit that his career has largely been a matter of luck. And it is likely the Hollywood was only interested in him because he was “weird” and surprisingly “cool” for a time. But after Synecdoche, New York, it is hard for them to escape the conclusion that he is an artist and that is not a safe conduit to the commodities and profits that they wish to create.

Happy birthday Charlie Kaufman!

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