Saturday, January 31, 2015

Obamacare Is Working (In Case You Were Wondering)

Since the media spent the last week exhaustively covering deflated footballs and blown weather forecasts, you will be excused if you missed yet more good news regarding the Affordable Care Act. You remember "Obamacare," right? The policy that was hatched in the left wing corridors of The Heritage Foundation, implemented in Massachusetts by a Republican who would be his party's standard bearer for President in 2012 and has been a massive financial windfall to the health insurance industry. Yeah, that.

In just the past few weeks, the following has happened:

  • Governors in deep red states like Wyoming, Tennessee, and Indiana have all accepted that dirty, filthy guv'mint money to expand Medicaid in their states;
  • More than 9.5 million people have signed up for private health insurance through the various state and federal health exchanges during this enrollment season;
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, the so-called "invisibles," those young people who were perceived to be the hardest to convince to buy more comprehensive coverage and most likely to opt for cheap catastrophic plans, have not done so. Only 1% of these young people are opting for the bare bones option, confirming that if affordable health coverage (and nearly 90% of Americans purchasing insurance under the ACA are eligible for subsidies) is available, people will purchase it;
  • The Congressional Budget Office's 10-year estimate for the cost of the ACA has gone down 20% since its initial analysis in 2010;
  • The cost of insurance is rising at the lowest level since that information started to be tracked in the early 1960s; and
  • In states with governors who were lockstep against the ACA, the people are voting with their wallets - in Florida, more than 1.2 million people have signed up for private coverage and a county in Florida holds the distinction as having signed up the most people in the United States; North Carolina is 6% above the national average for number of eligible adults who have gained coverage under the ACA; and both Georgia and Kentucky have seen above average enrollment numbers. 

Of course, the New York Times thought this news significant enough to bury on page A17 on Thursday and you would search long and hard to find any discussion of these facts on your nightly news or one of the myriad cable TV political chat fests. And I can almost guarantee that Chuck Todd will not dedicate a segment of this Sunday's Meet the Press to these facts, even though he had the gall to demand an apology from the President because got off to a bumpy start. But just because the good news is obscured and the bad news is magnified does not take away from what Vice President Biden aptly described as a "big fucking deal." 

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Monday, January 19, 2015

State of the Union - 2015

It has been said that you can judge a government's priorities based on where it spends its money and with two recent announcements by President Obama, it is clear he is interested in prioritizing educational opportunity for all Americans. Last year, the President called for the creation of universal pre-kindergarten ("pre-k") and, earlier this month, for two years of free tuition at community college provided students maintain a certain grade point average.

While the cost of these programs is modest in the big scheme of the federal budget, their combined impact would be massive and long-lasting. For universal pre-k, it has been estimated that the 10 year cost would be $75 billion; for community college, $60 billion, for a grand total of $135 billion, or $13.5 billion per year. In a federal budget of more than $3.6 trillion, this amounts to .00375% or less than four one-thousandths of one percent. Put another way, each year of funding both of these programs would be slightly more than what was spent each month in Iraq ($10 billion).

The funny thing is, when it came time to pay the tab for Iraq, no one in Congress demanded a cost saving "offset" or tax increase, they simply borrowed the money - saddling us with precisely the type of debt Republicans claim to hate. Now that the President has put forward potentially game changing educational proposals, Republicans are suddenly crying poor. Putting aside the long-term return on investment we would get by better preparing young children for school and making college less expensive, why is it that when bombs are flying, we can pull out Uncle Sam's credit card, but when it comes to nation building at home, we cannot seem to find the money? 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitt 3.0

Mitt Romney’s announcement last week that he is considering a third run for the White House has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the media and DC’s chattering class. Pundits are feverishly offering tic-tocks of behind the scenes phone calls to donors, the assembling of a campaign-in-waiting and even dusting off some of Mitt’s prior protestations that he was done with politics after his landslide defeat in 2012.

But the bigger question is why anyone takes this guy seriously. Romney spent a single term as Governor of Massachusetts, declined to run for re-election, and left office in 2006 to begin running for President - something he has now done for twice as long as he was Governor. His one major policy achievement, the passage of “Romneycare,” is anathema to large swaths of his party and he has shifted his position on every major foreign and domestic policy so many times, you need a chart to keep track of where he currently stands. He barely eked out a win in the 2012 Republican primary against what was universally recognized as the weakest field in decades and then proceeded to get his clock cleaned in the general election by a President who had an avalanche of negative press dropped on him from the day he put his hand on the Bible and an economy that was still finding its footing. And oh yeah, he produced the single most embarrassing piece of campaign video since Mike Dukakis was caught in that tank in 1988.

There is no clear rationale for a Romney candidacy, much less a Romney presidency. His purported managerial genius was exposed by the Obama team as a farce. The Romney campaign famously had more than twenty people review tweets before they were posted and major news organizations constantly griped about not just the candidate’s inaccessibility, but the inability to get the simplest parts of campaign logistics right – billing, wifi in press areas, etc – so how is it that we would entrust Mitt Romney with the levers of government? The other legs of his platform like lower unemployment and reduced deficits have happened without his stewardship and sops to corporations are as unpopular now as they were in 2012. Obama skewered Romney in their one foreign policy debate and Mitt’s after-the-fact gloating about Russia’s threat to the West has been mitigated substantially by the free fall in the ruble and financial crunch Russia is currently experiencing because of the plunge in the price of oil.

The rose colored glasses of those associated with Romney suggesting that he came close to winning is as delusional now as their ignoring polls leading up to Election Day 2012 that all strongly indicated a big Obama win. Indeed, Romney did not do much better than John McCain – winning two states, Indiana and North Carolina (the latter by a razor thin margin) – that McCain lost, but the former voted for a Democrat in 2008 for the first time since 1964 and the latter, for the first time since 1976. Romney did not come within spitting distance of Obama in critical states like Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio and lost “purple” states like Colorado and Virginia that Republicans once carried easily. Romney was outclassed in two of the three debates and was rightly pilloried as an out-of-touch rich guy who had very little sense or appreciation of the needs and struggles of everyday Americans unless you owned a NASCAR team or were attempting to bully the local planning board into allowing you to construct a car elevator in your beachfront mansion.

Perhaps this Romney boomlet is simply a product of the past falling down the memory hole, but on everything from his gaffe-filled foreign trip to England, Israel, and Poland when he offended the hosts in all of the countries he visited, to his bald lies in the waning days of the 2012 campaign about auto companies moving jobs to China, he was a disaster as a candidate who had one good night (the first Presidential debate) in an otherwise moribund, uncreative, and disorganized run for the most important job in the world. That he is even looked at as a plausible candidate for that position may say more about the latitude offered by the media because the American people have clearly made up their mind about him.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review - The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

Round about the time I got to entry number 14, Pasquale Frunzio, in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, I started to wonder whether this slim tome was a high-minded version of the TV show Punk’d. We are told that Frunzio, a frustrated writer living in Turin, is preparing to kill himself a la Sylvia Plath (head in the oven) when a courier comes to his door. Frunzio aborts his suicide attempt to see who is there and is handed a telegram from a prominent publisher expressing interest in releasing Frunzio’s work. According to the BDLF, Frunzio, still groggy from his inhalation of natural gas, sits down at his desk to re-read the telegram. When he turns on his desk light, the spark ignites the cloud of gas that had formed in the apartment, killing Frunzio and destroying the one copy of his manuscript.

Seriously? Of course, because almost all the writers featured in the BDLF are “never wases,” verifying their backstories is almost impossible. Editor C.D. Rose, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book essentially tells us to trust him – that “lack of space and certain legal niceties prevent us from divulging the whole history of the genesis of the BDLF” but that through a variety of methods and sources – junk shops, flea markets, literary agents and others – he has pieced together the stories of people whose work was never recognized in their lifetimes, much less for posterity.

Rose does an admirable job of providing condensed biographies of Frunzio and fifty-one others who strove to leave their mark on the literary world but fell far short of having any impact. If these stories are presumed to be true, many of the authors featured have a “truth is stranger than fiction” vibe to them – the writer who came up with more than 1,900 opening lines to stories but could never churn out a single follow-up sentence [1], the New Yorker whose first “novel” consisted of a single page and a single letter (“I”) and whose follow-up (ongoing) is a manuscript several hundred pages long made up of the same word typed over and over [2], or the genius-level cryptographer who worked for the British spy service during World War II but whose books were written in a cipher nobody can decode. [3]

Dedicated readers will make short work of the BDLF, which clocks in at a modest 168 pages, but will be left to ponder whether the literary canon has been denied valuable additions to its corpus or if history’s judgment has been validated by their absence.


1. Chad Sheehan, Entry Number 36. 
2. Virgil Haack, Entry Number 16. It is also worth noting that Rose does not disclose what word Haack is typing over and over again.
3. Veronica Vass, Entry Number 44.  

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