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“Expanding Social Security”: The Fiscal Scolds Driving The Cut-Social-Security Orthodoxy Have Deservedly Lost Credibility

For many years there has been one overwhelming rule for people who wanted to be considered serious inside the Beltway. It was this: You must declare your willingness to cut Social Security in the name of “entitlement reform.” It wasn’t really about the numbers, which never supported the notion that Social Security faced an acute crisis. It was instead a sort of declaration of identity, a way to show that you were an establishment guy, willing to impose pain (on other people, as usual) in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But a funny thing has happened in the past year or so. Suddenly, we’re hearing open discussion of the idea that Social Security should be expanded, not cut. Talk of Social Security expansion has even reached the Senate, with Tom Harkin introducing legislation that would increase benefits. A few days ago Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a stirring floor speech making the case for expanded benefits.

Where is this coming from? One answer is that the fiscal scolds driving the cut-Social-Security orthodoxy have, deservedly, lost a lot of credibility over the past few years. (Giving the ludicrous Paul Ryan an award for fiscal responsibility? And where’s my debt crisis?) Beyond that, America’s overall retirement system is in big trouble. There’s just one part of that system that’s working well: Social Security. And this suggests that we should make that program stronger, not weaker.

Before I get there, however, let me briefly take on two bad arguments for cutting Social Security that you still hear a lot.

One is that we should raise the retirement age — currently 66, and scheduled to rise to 67 — because people are living longer. This sounds plausible until you look at exactly who is living longer. The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline.

So this common argument amounts, in effect, to the notion that we can’t let janitors retire because lawyers are living longer. And lower-income Americans, in case you haven’t noticed, are the people who need Social Security most.

The other argument is that seniors are doing just fine. Hey, their poverty rate is only 9 percent.

There are two big problems here. First, there are well-known flaws with the official poverty measure, and these flaws almost surely lead to serious understatement of elderly poverty. In an attempt to provide a more realistic picture, the Census Bureau now regularly releases a supplemental measure that most experts consider superior — and this measure puts senior poverty at 14.8 percent, close to the rate for younger adults.

Furthermore, the elderly poverty rate is highly likely to rise sharply in the future, as the failure of America’s private pension system takes its toll.

When you look at today’s older Americans, you are in large part looking at the legacy of an economy that is no more. Many workers used to have defined-benefit retirement plans, plans in which their employers guaranteed a steady income after retirement. And a fair number of seniors (like my father, until he passed away a few months ago) are still collecting benefits from such plans.

Today, however, workers who have any retirement plan at all generally have defined-contribution plans — basically, 401(k)’s — in which employers put money into a tax-sheltered account that’s supposed to end up big enough to retire on. The trouble is that at this point it’s clear that the shift to 401(k)’s was a gigantic failure. Employers took advantage of the switch to surreptitiously cut benefits; investment returns have been far lower than workers were told to expect; and, to be fair, many people haven’t managed their money wisely.

As a result, we’re looking at a looming retirement crisis, with tens of millions of Americans facing a sharp decline in living standards at the end of their working lives. For many, the only thing protecting them from abject penury will be Social Security. Aren’t you glad we didn’t privatize the program?

So there’s a strong case for expanding, not contracting, Social Security. Yes, this would cost money, and it would require additional taxes — a suggestion that will horrify the fiscal scolds, who have been insisting that if we raise taxes at all, the proceeds must go to deficit reduction, not to making our lives better. But the fiscal scolds have been wrong about everything, and it’s time to start thinking outside their box.

Realistically, Social Security expansion won’t happen anytime soon. But it’s an idea that deserves to be on the table — and it’s a very good sign that it finally is.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 22, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Social Security | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Calling-Out Bad Analysis”: False Equivalency And Crocodile Tears

I’m delighted to see that amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the “nuclear option’s” invocation, there’s some robust calling-out of bad analysis and crocodile tears.

WaPo was Ground Zero for “centrist” bemoaning of the terrible partisanship this step would unleash. But Jonathan Chait was having none of it:

The bizarre, defining feature of this argument is that, unlike the crocodile tears being shed by Republicans, the centrist Establishmentarians all take the view that the Republican judicial blockade was completely unacceptable. They argue that the solution to the unacceptable blockade is that, as the Post piously insists, “Both parties should have stepped back and hammered out a bipartisan compromise reform.”

That Republicans did not offer to compromise or in any way back down from the stance the Post calls unacceptable is a fact so fatal to this argument that none of the three [WaPo]writers in any way acknowledges it. I would agree that a 50-vote threshold for lifetime judicial appointments represents a sub-optimal arrangement. It would be better if there were some way for the Senate to filter out extreme nominees without having the power to wantonly blockade a vital court for nakedly partisan reasons. Given the refusal of Republicans to back down, I prefer majoritarianism to the existing alternative. The Establishmentarians refuse to grapple with the trade-off. They are against fires and fire hoses alike.

Unfortunately, now that the “nuclear option” has been officially recorded as the efficient cause of whatever happens next in the descent to partisan polarization, it will become the ever-ready justification for future false equivalency arguments of the sort Chait eviscerates.

An even more interesting deconstruction of today’s wailathon comes from Jonathan Bernstein, writing, as it happens, at WaPo’s Plum Line. He suggests it may have been the “reasonable” Senate Republicans pitching the biggest fits about the nuclear option who precipitated it by their languid-at-best attempts at a preemptive deal, and who may actually welcome it privately because it gets them out of a jam:

The problem with the summer compromise is that it was horrible for deal-making Republicans. The deal essentially said: Republicans will continue to filibuster nominations, but will supply enough votes for almost all of them so that the filibusters will be defeated. But that meant that in practice a handful of Republicans were forced to tag-team their votes, making sure that Democrats always had 60. What’s more, the shutdown fight — which began right after the Senate deal was struck — revealed that radical Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) were eager to scapegoat those same deal-making Republicans. That raised the cost of the executive branch nominations agreement for tag-teamers such as Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). In other words, the summer deal might or might not have been stable, but it certainly couldn’t hold in a world in which the majority of Republican senators are looking for ways to separate themselves from mainstream conservatives, and then using that separation to attack them.

Now Obama gets his judges, and “mainstream conservatives”–especially those like Alexander and Graham who are facing 2014 primary threats–can happily vote against them. What’s not to like?


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, November 22, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Filibuster, Journalists, Senate | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The South’s New Lost Cause”: A Mason-Dixon Line Of Health Care Dispair

Before he was immortalized for saving the union, freeing the slaves and giving the best political speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln was just an unpopular new president handed a colossal crisis. Elected with 39.7 percent of the vote, Lincoln told a big lie in his inaugural address of 1861.

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” he said, reaching out to the breakaway South. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

He was saying to a Confederacy that would enshrine owning another human being in its new constitution: If you like the slaves you’ve got now, you can keep them. It was a lie in the sense that Lincoln made a promise, changed by circumstances, that he broke less than two years later — and probably never meant to keep.

The comparisons of President Obama to Lincoln fade with every day of the shrinking modern presidency. As for the broken-promise scale: Lincoln said an entire section of the country could continue to enslave more than one in three of its people. Obama wrongly assured about five million people that they could keep their bare-bones health plans if they liked them (later amended when it turned out not to be true).

As inapt as those comparisons are, what is distressingly similar today is how the South is once again committed to taking a backward path. By refusing to expand health care for the working poor through Medicaid, which is paid for by the federal government under Obamacare, most of the old Confederacy is committed to keeping millions of its own fellow citizens in poverty and poor health. They are dooming themselves, further, as the Left-Behind States.

And they are doing it out of spite. Elsewhere, the expansion of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, has been one of the few success stories of Obamacare. It may be too complicated for the one-dimensional Beltway press. Either that, or it doesn’t fit the narrative of failure.

But in the states that have embraced a program that reaches out to low-wage workers, almost 500,000 people have signed up for health care in less than two months time. This is good for business, good for state taxpayers (because the federal government is subsidizing the expansion) and can do much to lessen the collateral damages of poverty, from crime to poor diets. In Kentucky, which has bravely tried to buck the retrograde tide, Medicaid expansion is projected to create 17,000 jobs. In Washington, the state predicts 10,000 new jobs and savings of $300 million in the first 18 months of expansion.

Beyond Medicaid, the states that have diligently tried to make the private health care exchanges work are putting their regions on a path that will make them far more livable, easing the burden of crippling, uninsured medical bills — the leading cause of personal bankruptcy.

And those states aren’t going to turn back the clock and revert to the bad old days, no matter how Republicans try to kill health care reform in the wake of the federal rollout. Many are refusing to accept Obama’s “fix” of allowing people to keep sketchy health care policies. If they follow the pattern of Massachusetts — where a mere 123 people enrolled in the first month of Romneycare, after which it gradually took off — the progressive states could end up with more than 95 percent of their residents insured.

What we could see, 10 years from now, is a Mason-Dixon line of health care. One side (with exceptions for conservative Midwest and mountain states) would be the insured North, a place where health care coverage was affordable and available to most people. On the other side would be the uninsured South, where health care for the poor would amount to treating charity cases in hospital emergency rooms.

Texas, where one in four people have no health care and Gov. Rick Perry proudly resists extending the Medicaid helping hand to the working poor, would be the leading backwater in this Dixie of Despair. In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, only Arkansas and Tennessee are now open to Medicaid expansion.

The South, already the poorest region in the country, with all the attendant problems, would acquire another distinction — a place where, if you were sick and earned just enough money that you didn’t qualify for traditional Medicare, you might face the current system’s version of a death panel.

The only good news is that a handful of political leaders down South have grasped the utter stupidity of refusing to help their own people, or even giving the state exchanges a chance. In this month’s recent special election for a congressional seat in a solidly Republican Louisiana district, a pragmatic businessman, Vance McAllister, beat a Tea Party candidate with the full Obama derangement syndrome. The winner said Obamacare was the law of the land and might as well be applied in Louisiana, the nation’s third poorest state. (It didn’t hurt that he had the backing of a “Duck Dynasty” star.)

But most of the South is defiant — their own Lost Cause for the 21st century.


By: Timothy Egan, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, November 21, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Confederacy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stupid Obamacare!”: Profit Maximizing Private Insurance Companies Got You Down, Blame Obama

It has been said many times over the last few years that now that Democrats successfully passed a comprehensive overhaul of American health insurance, they own the health-care system, for good or ill. Every problem anyone has with health care will be blamed on Barack Obama, whether his reform had anything to do with it or not. Your kid got strep throat? It’s Obama’s fault! Doctor left a sponge in your chest cavity? Stupid Obama! Grandma died after a long illness at the age of 97? Damn you, Obama!

OK, so maybe it won’t be quite as bad as that, but pretty close. Here’s an instructive case in exactly how this plays out. Take a look at this article that ran in yesterday’s Washington Post, telling how in order to keep premiums down and attract customers, some insurers are limiting their networks. “As Americans have begun shopping for health plans on the insurance exchanges,” the article tells us, “they are discovering that insurers are restricting their choice of doctors and hospitals in order to keep costs low, and that many of the plans exclude top-rated hospitals.”

So insurance companies—private actors seeking to maximize profit—are making decisions that some potential customers find less than perfectly appealing. The article itself is clear about why this is happening, but in the newspaper’s print edition, the subtitle read, “Exchanges Exclude Doctors, Hospitals.” Of course, that’s completely false. The exchanges haven’t excluded any doctors and hospitals, the insurance companies offering plans on the exchanges have made a decision to exclude them. The insurance companies are perfectly free to make a different decision, but they’ve decided not to.

So the newspaper runs this story, with the headline writers mistakenly portraying what for some small number of people is an unwelcome development as a decision made by the Obama administration. Conservatives will then take articles like this and others like it, and say, “See? Obama said you could keep your doctor! He lied! This law is a disaster!” Barack Obama never said that he’d forbid any insurance company from ever changing anyone’s policy or offering policies that provide something less than spectacularly gold-plated coverage at absurdly low prices. But now, every profit-maximizing decision by a corporation becomes Barack Obama’s fault.

The second component of Barack Obama coming to own all the problems with the health-care system is that with the rollout of the ACA, you suddenly have a lot of political reporters doing stories on health care, and many of them have only the thinnest understanding of the law. That limited understanding makes it easier for them to just focus on whatever negative things are happening in health care, blaming them on the ACA, and assuring themselves that they’ve been appropriately “tough” in their reporting.

There’s nothing wrong with reporters fully exploring all the changes our ever-evolving health-care system goes through, so long as they do it accurately. But you might notice that they are completely uninterested in the stories of people who are being helped by the Affordable Care Act. Harold Pollack estimates that there are over 10 million uninsured Americans who have significant medical issues like a cancer diagnosis or diabetes, and thus find it difficult or impossible to get insurance on the individual market under the pre-ACA system. These people will now be able to get reasonably priced insurance, which for many will be literally life-saving. But journalists find these people boring and not worth talking about. They’re much more interested in people who find something problematic in the new system, and they’re working hard to find every last one of those people’s stories and share them with the country. And that’s how Barack Obama ends up owning the health-care system.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 22, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Insurance Companies, Obamacare | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“From The Party Of No To The Party Of Oops”: How Republican Intransigence Keeps Backfiring

Exasperated with repeated Republican stonewalling of President Obama’s executive and judicial nominees, Senate Democrats on Thursday went nuclear, striking down two centuries of precedent regarding the chamber’s arcane filibuster rules.

By a 52-48 vote, the Senate voted to allow confirmation of federal judge and Cabinet nominees with a simple majority vote. The move did not, however, change the filibuster rules regarding legislation and Supreme Court nominees.

For Republicans, it was the latest defeat to come as a result of the party’s refusal to engage with their Democratic colleagues on even minor issues. The GOP has earned a reputation under Obama as the “party of no” for its intransigence, which in recent months has proven self-defeating more than once.

Take the filibuster.

For a full year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened the nuclear option to circumvent Republican inaction. Most recently, Republicans blocked three nominees to the powerful U.S. District Court of Appeals, not because of any qualms with the candidates’ credentials, but merely because they didn’t want Obama filling vacancies on an influential court that tilts conservative.

With the GOP refusing to back down, Reid finally dropped the bomb, ensuring Obama’s nominees could get an up-or-down vote — and, as a bonus, handing liberals a procedural reform they’ve long sought.

“The American people believe the Senate is broken,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday, “and I believe the American people are right.”

Outraged Republicans vowed retribution, saying they would use the process to stack future courts in their favor once they’re back in control. Except to do that, they would need to first retake the Senate and White House, which may not be so easy by 2016.

In the meantime, Democrats have a little extra muscle to help Obama staff his administration as he sees fit (which, let’s remember, used to be common practice). That could be immensely important, since House Republicans have shown no interest in dealing with the president on anything substantive like immigration reform.

As New York‘s Jonathan Chait detailed more thoroughly here, “Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress,” so his “second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies.”

With the filibuster tweak, Obama can now more readily advance his administrative agenda — and Republicans allowed that to happen by forcing Reid’s hand on the filibuster. At that point, he didn’t have much choice: Had he set the precedent of allowing the minority party to prevent judicial vacancies from being filled, Republicans would only have been encouraged to do it again.

“Eventually this escalation would have become untenable,” wrote Salon’s Brian Beutler, “and somebody would have had to go nuclear.”

That’s the same argument Democrats made during the government shutdown, another instance of GOP obstinacy backfiring spectacularly. Had Democrats and President Obama acceded to the GOP’s hostage-taking, it would have established a precedent that government shutdowns and threats of debt default were the norm for legislative negotiations.

And by letting Republicans dig in, Democrats reaped the political benefits of seeing the GOP’s approval ratings tank.

The same dynamic could soon play out on health care, too.

ObamaCare face-planted out of the gate, and Republicans have rightly criticized the administration’s extensive failings in implementing it. However, the GOP has yet to offer a credible alternative health-care plan. The party’s playbook for winning the PR battle over the law, outlined Thursday by the New York Times, is heavy on strategy but light on substance.

“Rather than get out of Obama’s path of self-destruction and focus energy on creating and promoting a positive, forward-looking health-care agenda” wrote National Journal’s Ron Fournier, “the GOP has chosen to cement its reputation as the obstructionist party.”

Republicans will keep stepping on rakes if they opt merely for “no” instead of “no, but instead.” And with ObamaCare possibly set to make something of a comeback in the coming weeks, the clock is ticking.


By: John Terbush, The Week, November 22, 2013

November 23, 2013 Posted by | Filibuster, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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