Facts and reason v. distortions and innuendo

We’re pretty careful when we post something on this web page.  When we see something in the news that we think is of interest and relevant to the Democratic perspective, we first try to make certain that it is accurate and verifiable before creating a blog entry.  We also typically imbed links that serve as backup material for the statements we make.  That’s because we expect our readers NOT to simply accept what we say here on blind faith, but to require that such statements be fact-based.  It’s a standard we work arduously and proudly to uphold.

Not everyone, of course, adheres to this approach.  Many political web sites, political advocacy groups and even major media outlets frequently run stories and ads that distort the actual facts, leave out critical details or are just simply untrue, delivering what their readers/viewers WANT to hear – WANT to be true – as opposed to what is actually true, complete and relevant.  A few examples:

Last fall, at the beginning of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) rollout, Sean Hannity had three couples on his show who were, in the host’s words, “feeling the pain of Obamacare and the healthcare overhaul train wreck.”  After these couples were contacted by (actual) journalists, none of their stories held up under scrutiny.

One couple stated that, “because of Obamacare, they can’t grow their construction business and they have kept their employees below a certain number of hours, so that they are part-timers.”  Well, it turns out that the company in question had only four employees.  The only ACA requirement for such small companies is that they notify their employees of the existence of the Obamacare exchanges.  Under the ACA, you would only be required to provide insurance if you have at least 50 full-time employees.

The other two couples both received cancellation letters from their current carriers and were quoted pretty stiff increases for Obamacare-compliant policies by those same companies.  Both couples also refused to even check the exchanges for comparable policies simply because they “didn’t like Obamacare.”  Journalists checking the web sites for them found that both could receive better coverage for less money.  How can you claim something is bad – on national television, yet – when you haven’t even examined it?

In Louisiana, Americans for Prosperity, funded largely by the petro-chemical magnates, Charles and David Koch, is running ads against incumbent U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.  The ads depict Louisianans receiving letters from their insurance companies that supposedly cancel their policies and blame the Affordable Care Act.  Problem is, the ads not only feature professional actors instead of actual Louisiana citizens, but also, the producers concede, do not even reflect any specific individual cases.  The events depicted are instead, according to the producers, “emblematic” of what is happening in that state.  You will note that they did not support that claim by citing any real cases.

And, lastly, right here in little old San Juan County, the Republican web site has a post up claiming that, “OBAMACARE IS LITERALLY KILLING THE MIDDLE CLASS.”  The post is simply a link to (yet another) Koch Brothers/Americans for Prosperity ad, this one being aired in Michigan.  It features a woman who has leukemia and claims that Obamacare caused cancellation of her existing policy and that the replacement one has out-of-pocket costs that make her treatments unaffordable, a heart-rending story to be sure.  The local GOPers clearly liked what this ad said so much that they simply neglected to check out whether it was accurate.  But, that’s okay, the folks at the Washington Post did it for them.  Turns out that the lady’s premiums for her old policy were about $1,100 per month.  Those for her new policy under the ACA are about half that.  The savings for that over a year almost exactly equal the out-of-pocket maximum payments under the ACA of $6,350, so the whole thing is pretty much a wash.  Oh, she also gets to keep her doctor.  The Washington Post gave the ad two Pinocchios for “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations.”

Research gives us insight into why these types of emotional appeals work irrespective of whether there is any rational substance behind them.  Sadly, it indicates that political attitudes are largely formed by cultural, environmental and other factors, rather than as a result of information gathering and reasoned thought.  One unfortunate consequence of this is that attempts to persuade people to change based on presentation of facts more often than not simply leads to a hardening of their attitudes.  Despite this discouraging finding, we will continue to deploy factual information and rational analysis to our opinions on this page.  A man can only deny the truth for so long.

A few notes on the Republican perspective

The local Republican web site has an article up this week with their take on the differences between how each of the major parties approaches the (ostensibly) mutually agreed objectives of “happy lives free of stress and having the unfortunate cared for.”

As examples of how to realize “happiness in personal wealth and healthy communities including care for the needy,” they list:

Successful Businesses
The Food Bank/Resource Center
Church Outreach and Hospitals
Service Organizations-Lions, Rotary, Kiwanas
Local Animal Shelters

Well, we’re all for successful businesses, particularly the locally-owned variety.  And we all support the efforts of local service organizations, volunteers and similar efforts to help those who need it.  But the fact is that these, alone, are wholly insufficient to either adequately facilitate the pursuit of happiness or address the needs of the less fortunate.

In 2011, the federal government doled out just under $97 billion for food assistance of various types (the recently passed agriculture bill cuts this by about $1 billion per year).  Yes, that’s a lot of money, but compare it to the TOTAL for similar aid given by charitable groups in the same year: $4.1 billion.  Republicans can gnash teeth and rend garments all day long about having their tax dollars go to feed others, but the fact is that private charity can’t come close to meeting the need that exists for supplemental food assistance.

A third of all new businesses fail within two years.  Half are gone within four years.  While we salute and admire those who have borne that risk and survived, starting a business is not for everyone.  And it’s clearly not a general recipe for “happy lives free of stress.”  So Republicans can wax all 1%-ish they want about free market capitalism and charitable  being the Yellow Brick Road to happiness and freedom from want, but a look at actual intrinsic data just doesn’t bear that out.

The Republican web post also lists the following as examples of government programs that fail to “take care of [our] happiness and the needs of the unfortunate”:

Postal System
Social Security

The USPS delivers great service at very reasonable prices.  It’s purported fiscal problems are almost entirely a creation of Congress.  During the Iraq War, my office adopted a platoon and regularly sent snacks, treats, music, DVDs and other items to the troops (you’ll notice that, even though I didn’t support the war, I supported the troops).  The first time I sent a package, I sent it via UPS.  The cost was outrageous, just for ground delivery.  After that, I sent by US Mail for about a third of the cost.  That made ME pretty happy.  Also, ever tried to get UPS or FedEx to deliver a simple letter across the country for 46 cents?  Try it.  It WON’T make you very happy.  BTW, 77% of Americans are happy with the USPS, better numbers than those of free market icons such as Google, computer software makers, telephone companies, and internet service providers.

Just like the postal service, most of Amtrak’s financial problems were created by Congress and just like the USPS, Congress could fix them if they wanted to. Just 26 of Amtrak’s routes carry four-fifths of its passengers, or 25.8 million riders per year. Ridership on these routes is growing rapidly and they are profitable.

Medicaid is a program that provides health care coverage for 58 million people who otherwise could not afford it.  While we have food banks and similar functions, a Google search for “free clinic San Juan county Washington” turned up zero relevant results.  Please tell me how entrepreneurship and charitable giving are going to meet the needs of 58 million people with no access to affordable healthcare?

With the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is far and away the most popular and successful government program ever established.  Does it make people happy?  Does it provide for the needy?  Well, try taking it away and see what happens.  No, wait.  Don’t even go that far.  Just try and make changes to it that might endanger its viability in the eyes of those receiving benefits.  Actually, you don’t have to do either.  Just ask George W. Bush how it would go over with the American electorate.  He has some experience in that area.

Obamacare is well on its way to providing affordable healthcare access to millions who would otherwise be without it.  This will be of great benefit not only to those who gain coverage, but also the rest of us whose premiums will be lower, hospitals and other providers which will have now serve many more whose bills will not have to be written off as bad debts and insurance companies themselves which will profit from millions more customers.  How is this NOT a win-win for both communities and healthcare providers?

Like most Republican arguments, these are mere statements, claims with no basis in fact, and – you will notice, – they provide absolutely no supporting material.  The article concludes with the statement, “Watch while Republicans clean up the present mess.”  Well, before they can do that, they’ll have to convince the electorate to give them the chance.  With “arguments” like these, it’s hard to see the electorate giving them the imprimatur to do so.


No, we DON’T spend $1 trillion on “welfare” each year

From Mike Konczal via the Washington Post:

If you’ve read any conservative commentary on the war on poverty in the past week, you’ve likely seen this talking point: “We spend $1 trillion each year on welfare and there’s been no reduction in poverty.” That’s crazy! Then, a sentence later, you’ll probably see a line like this: “It’s true. According to a recent report, we spend a trillion dollars on means-test programs each year, yet the official census numbers show no reduction in poverty.”

If you are reading that second line quickly, you probably think it bolsters the credibility of the first line. It’s an “official” number, and the census and the report probably quote accurate numbers too, night? They do, but the second sentence is actually used as an escape hatch to say something that isn’t true. We don’t spend anywhere near a trillion dollars on welfare unless you mangle the term “welfare” to be meaningless, and we do reduce poverty.

First, Dylan Matthews has already dissected the claim that poverty hasn’t declined. It has. It’s just that the “official” poverty rate doesn’t factor in the earned-income tax credit or food stamps in its calculations. Given that these are two of the most direct ways that the government tries to lift people out of poverty, that’s a major problem. These programs do, in fact, lift people out of poverty–it just doesn’t show up in the official rate, because that’s how the rate is constructed.

The claim about $1 trillion on “welfare” is more interesting and complicated. It shows up in this recent report from the Cato Institute, which argues that the federal government spends $668 billion dollars per year on 126 different welfare programs (spending by the state and local governments push that figure up to $1 trillion per year).

Welfare has traditionally meant some form of “outdoor relief,” or cash, or cash-like compensation, that is given to the poor without them having to enter an institution. As the historian Michael Katz has documented, the battle over outdoor relief, has been a long one throughout our country’s history.

However, this claims says any money mostly spent on the poor is “welfare.” To give you a better sense here, the federal spending breaks down into a couple of broad categories. Only about one-third of it is actually what we think of as “welfare”:

1) Cash and cash-like programs: As Michael Linden of Center for American Progress told me, there are five big programs in the Cato list that are most analogous to what people think of as “welfare”: The refundable part of the Earned Income Tax Credit ($55 billion), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ($21 billion), Supplemental Security Income ($43.7 billion), food stamps ($75 billion), and housing vouchers ($18 billion) and the Child Tax Credit. All together, that’s around $212 billion dollars.”

2) Health care: This is actually the biggest item on Cato’s list. Medicaid spends $228 billion on the non-elderly population, and children’s health insurance plan takes up another $13.5 billion. This is also roughly a third as well.

3) Opportunity-related programs: These are programs that are broadly related to opportunities, mostly in education or job-training. So you have things like Title 1 grants ($14 billion) and Head Start ($7.1 billion) in this category. But as Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Donna Pavetti notes, these programs don’t all go to poor people. For instance, Title I benefits school districts with a large share of poor children, however that money will help non-poor students attending those schools.

4) Targeted and community programs: What remains are programs designed to provide certain services to poor communities, which make up the bulk of the number of programs. Adoption assistance ($2.5 billion) and low income taxpayer clinics ($9.9 million) are two examples here.

So what should we take away from this?

–The federal government spends just $212 billion per year on what we could reasonably call “welfare.” (Even then, the poor have to enter the institution of waged labor to get the earned income tax credit.) And there have been numerous studies showing that these programs, especially things like food stamps, are both very efficient and effective at reducing poverty. They just don’t show up in the official poverty statistics, because that’s how the poverty statistics are designed.

— Publicly funded services have never been thought of as welfare. I drive on publicly funded roads, but nobody analytically thinks of roads as belonging to category of “welfare.” If the poor take advantage of, say, a low-income taxpayer clinic, how is that welfare? Do taxpayer clinics encourage illegitimacy, dependency and idleness and other things conservatives worry about when it comes to welfare? This confuses more than it illuminates, which I imagine is the point.

Medicaid makes this very obvious. If a poor person gets access to decent health care, that’s not free money they get to spend on whatever they want. They aren’t “on the dole.”

— The fact that Social Security and Medicare, major victories of the War on Poverty, aren’t here makes it clear something is wrong in the definition. Even though these are anti-poverty programs associated with the War on Poverty, nobody thinks of them as welfare, though they should fit this definition as well.

–It’s interesting to see conservatives consider opportunity programs to be “welfare,” because those programs broadly involve things they say they are for. Perhaps you think these programs are good investments or perhaps you don’t, but they are a whole other conceptual category than welfare, or just giving poor people money when they need it.

It’s also interesting to see conservatives lament the sheer number of anti-poverty programs. One reason this set-up exists is because so many programs are run through nonprofit groups (a set-up that makes us unique among developed countries). But conservatives have long tended to favor this arrangement, since nonprofit groups are supposed to boost civil society and provide an antidote to the nameless, faceless Big Government bureaucrats.

Read that again: conservatives complain that we should have less welfare and more opportunity and civil society, only to turn around and also call those things “welfare” too when the time comes.

— Perhaps some of these programs should be discontinued, or expanded, or turned into straight cash. (How about cash instead of food stamps?) But we can’t have a productive conversation unless we make it clear what the government is, and is not, doing. And it is spending a lot less on welfare than conservatives claim, and getting fantastic results for what it does spend.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he focuses on financial regulation, inequality and unemployment. He writes a weekly column for Wonkblog. Follow him on Twitter here.

It’s official: Americans oppose Obamacare

Everyone knows by now, or should know, that a majority of Americans “oppose” Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Fox News, talk radio and even the mainstream media have pointed this out repeatedly.  But the last presidential election was fought largely on this turf, and President Obama was returned to office in an electoral landslide.  How can this conundrum be reconciled?

A recent CNN poll reconfirms the numbers: 58% of Americans say they oppose the law.  However, this poll does what others generally have not: It drills down into respondents’ reasons for their opposition.  It turns out that, of that 58%, 41% oppose the law because it is “too liberal,” while 14% say it’s “not liberal enough.”

So, just to set the record straight, 41% of Americans oppose the ACA because it is socialism, will “destroy the American way of life,” and/or will cause a plague of locusts o’er the land, while 54% either favor it or want something even more far-reaching, e.g. single payer.

So next time you see Sean Hannity touting a poll that he says tells you all you need to know, just remember that it’s likely not necessarily what the respondents truly think, but how he’s asking the question that gets those results.

Death of the filibuster

It appears that that sacred cow of U.S. Senate tradition known as the filibuster is dead.  OK, maybe it’s only half dead, since the Democratic leadership only surgically removed it for presidential appointments other than the Supreme Court (i.e. SCOTUS appointments and legislation can technically still be subject to the procedure).  But the Republican leadership has already signaled – okay, SWORN – to eliminate it for everything in retaliation for this “travesty” just as soon as they are returned to the majority.

In other words, Republicans say, the Democrats have wreaked heinous damage upon our democracy … and so we’re going to render that damage both permanent and complete, just as soon as we’re given the chance.  Almost makes you think that’s what they wanted to begin with, only this is much better because now they can blame the whole thing on the Democrats.

Whatever you think of the filibuster, one thing is certain.  Republicans have adhered meticulously to the strategy they famously hatched on inauguration night in 2009 (as documented by author Robert Draper) to oppose Obama’s every policy, appointment and legislative initiative.

How bad is it?  The record on executive appointments, alone:

Senate filibusters of executive appointments since 1952.

This is clearly unprecedented abuse of what was once a time-honored Senate tradition of respecting minority party rights.  But it has gotten completely out of hand, as Republicans vowed on that January night in 2009.  It is no longer used solely, as intended, in rare or extreme cases, but rather invoked routinely and pettily as a way to prevent the Executive branch from doing its job.

Elections are supposed to have consequences.  The president is supposed to be able to make appointments.  Most of those he has made have not been subject to opposition over their qualifications or even ideology, but merely as a way of keeping the president from getting things done.  You need look no further than this Republican strategy of obstruction at all costs to understand why absolutely nothing is getting done in Washington.  That’s not good for the country, and voters should make Republicans pay a price for it in 2014.

Tempest in a Teapot

So the president has been telling us for the past three years that, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), if you like your current health insurance and want to keep it, Obamacare will do nothing to change that.  Now hundreds of thousands of people are getting notices that their policies are not ACA-compliant and are being cancelled.  So the president is a big liar, just like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been telling you for years now, right?

Wrong.  Measures in the ACA provide that policies being sold in 2010 would be grandfathered, i.e. companies could continue selling them, whether ACA-compliant or not, so long as no major changes are made to them, e.g. modifications to benefits, co-pays or limits of coverage.  If a company elects to change any of these things, the grandfather provision is dissolved and any new policy must be in accord with ACA requirements.

So it is the insurance companies, not Obamacare, that are causing the cancellations. But that’s not to say that, by doing so, insurance companies are doing anything shady, nefarious or out of sheer greed.  Rather, it’s pretty much standard practice for the individual marketplace.  A little background:

About 85-86% of Americans have some kind of health insurance.  Most, about 80%, have group policies of some sort, typically through employment, but that number also includes Medicare and Medicaid recipients.  That other 5-6% buys insurance directly on the individual market, and they are the ones potentially susceptible to policy cancellations.

Yes, it’s inconvenient and annoying to have your insurance company tell you your policy is being cancelled and you will have to replace it with something else.  However, this is extremely common in the individual marketplace, Obamacare notwithstanding.  That’s because such policies are typically twelve-month contracts at the end of which either party can opt out.  Under HIPAA (1996), companies are required to offer replacement policies, but nothing prohibits them from changing benefits or premiums when they do so.

And it’s not as if the cancellations are interrupting long term relationships between the insured and their companies.  Almost half of individual policies are held for less than six months, two out of three are kept for a year or less and only about one in six (17% 0f that 5-6% or less than 1% of all Americans with insurance) are held for as long as two years or more.

So, if your policy is cancelled, it’s NOT because of the ACA.  Your company was going to cancel it and you’d have to get a new policy, anyway.  The difference is that any new policy must be ACA-compliant.

So, how many people does that negatively impact?  As it turns out, not so many.  According to MIT economist, Jonathan Gruber:

  • The 80% of people with employer-based plans or similar coverage will just keep their current policies.
  • The 14-15% with no current coverage will now have access to it.
  • About half of the 5-6% with individual plans will acquire policies with similar coverage and cost.
  • And the other half of that 5-6% will have to consider buying more expensive, albeit more comprehensive, policies.


Click to enlarge.

So let’s see, the vast majority of people (83%) will be largely unaffected, 14-15% will suddenly gain access to healthcare and 2-3% will have to pay more for better coverage.  I’m afraid I do not see a train wreck in there, anywhere.  Much ado about nothing.

Oh, BTW, Michelle, it’s the Affordable Care Act or ACA, not AHA, which is the acronym, variously, for the American Heart Association, Arabian Horse Association or the American Homebrewers Association, take your pick.

Things you won’t see on the Republican web site

As the recent government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis rumbled chaotically on, both Republicans and Fox News desperately tried to lay the blame for the events Republicans purposely orchestrated on President Obama and Congressional Democrats.  This is about as accurate as if the Confederate states had claimed that President Lincoln kicked them out of the Union.

The American public is apparently neither fooled nor amused.  According to the latest Gallup poll, in the aftermath of these events the Republican Party’s approval rating is down to 28%, the lowest it has ever been for either party in the more than twenty years since Gallup began asking the question.

Now, you would think that this might have Republicans rethinking their whole approach, but apparently not.  A visit to the local Republican web site certainly reveals no such remorse.  Rather, there is only praise for those, like Ted Cruz, whose antics took us needlessly to the brink of economic apocalypse, and scorn for those of their own, like Mitch McConnell, who actually helped avert disaster.

Republicans were stunned when mainstream polls were right and their “experts,” like Dick Morris, Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove, were wrong about the public mood prior to the 2012 election.  They vowed to remake their image to be more inclusive and attuned to what the public wants and expects.  And so how’s that working out so far?

Well, immigration reform is still languishing on John Boehner’s desk, where it’s been since passing the Senate last June.  Republican legislatures are still passing laws to restrict voting rights and deny women reproductive freedom.    And what do you want to bet that come next January Republican congressional dogma will raise the specter of yet another government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis?

A pundit much wittier than I once posited that denial is not just a river in Egypt.  Indeed.  It’s apparently also a core Republican value.