Posts tagged ‘Obama Administration’

I am Pretty Sure Bastiat Figured This Out 150 Years Ago: Cash For Clunkers Even Worse Than First Thought

From the WSJ

In a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper this month, economists at Texas A&M return to Cash for Clunkers, the 2009 stimulus fillip that dispensed vouchers worth as much as $4,500 if people turned in their old cars for destruction and bought a new set of wheels. Mark Hoekstra, Steven Puller and Jeremy West report their "striking" finding that the $3 billion program's two-month run subtracted between $2.6 billion and $4 billion from the auto industry.

The irony is that the goals were to help Detroit through the recession by subsidizing sales and to please the green lobby by putting more fuel-efficient cars on the road. By pulling forward purchases that consumers would make later anyway, the Obama Administration also hoped to add to GDP. Christina Romer, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, called Cash for Clunkers "very nearly the best possible countercyclical fiscal policy in an economy suffering from temporarily low aggregate demand."

The A&M economists had the elegant idea of comparing the buying behavior of Texas drivers who owned cars that barely qualified for cash (those that got 18 miles per gallon of gas or less) and those that barely did not (19 mph). Using state DMV sales records, this counterfactual allowed them to isolate the effects of the Cash for Clunkers incentives and show what would have happened without the program.

The two groups were equally likely to purchase a new vehicle over the nine month period that started with Cash for Clunkers, so the subsidy did not create any extra auto business. But in order to meet the fuel efficiency mandate, consumers who got the subsidy were induced to purchase smaller vehicle models with less horsepower that cost on average $2,500 to $3,000 less than those bought by their ineligible peers. The clunkers bought more Corollas, and everybody else more Chevys.

Extrapolated nationally, auto revenues may have plunged by more than what the government spent. And any environmental benefits cannot be justified under the federal social cost of carbon estimate of $33 a ton. Prior research from 2009 and 2013 has shown that the program cost between $237 and $288 a carbon ton.

Forget Halbig. Obama May Have Lost the Senate By Giving Subsidies to the Federal Exchange

In Halbig, the DC Circuit argued that the plain language of the PPACA should rule, and that subsidies should only apply to customers in state-run exchanges.  I am going to leave the legal stuff out of this post, and say that I think from a political point of view, Obamacare proponents made a mistake not sticking with the actual language in the bill.  The IRS was initially ready to deny subsidies to the Federal exchanges until Administration officials had them reverse themselves.  When the Obama Administration via the IRS changed the incipient IRS rule to allow subsidies to customers in Federal exchanges, I believe it panicked.  It saw states opting out and worried about the subsidies not applying to a large number of Americans on day 1, and that lowered participation rates would be used to mark the program as a failure.

But I think this was playing the short game.  In the long game, the Obama Administration would have gone along with just allowing subsidies to state-run exchanges.  Arizona, you don't want to build an exchange?  Fine, tell your people why they are not getting the fat subsidies others in California and New York are getting.  Living in Arizona, I have watched this redder than red state initially put its foot down and refuse to participate in the Medicaid expansion, and then slowly see that resolve weaken under political pressure. "Governor Brewer, why exactly did you turn down Federal Medicaid payments for AZ citizens?  Why are Arizonans paying taxes for Medicaid patients in New Jersey but not getting the benefit here?"

Don't get me wrong, I would like to see Obamacare go away, but I think Obama would be standing in much better shape right now had he limited subsidies to state exchanges because

  1. The disastrous Federal exchange roll-out would not have been nearly so disastrous without the pressure of subsidies and the data integration subsidy checks require.  Also, less people would have likely enrolled, reducing loads on the system
  2. Instead of the main story being about general dissatisfaction with Obamacare, there would at least be a competing story of rising political pressure in certain states that initially opted out to join the program and build an exchange.  It would certainly give Democrats in red and purple states a positive message to run on in 2014.

Perfect Example of Government Doublespeak

An Obama Administration executive order / regulation (hard to tell the difference any more)

Department of Labor
29 CFR Part 10
Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors; Proposed Rule

34568 Federal Register / Vol. 79, No. 116 / Tuesday, June 17, 2014 / Proposed Rules

This document proposes regulations to implement Executive Order13658, Establishing a Minimum Wage for Contractors, which was signed by President Barack Obama on February 12, 2014.

The Executive Order therefore seeks to increase efficiency and cost savings in the work performed by parties that contract with the Federal Government by raising the hourly minimum wage paid by those contractors to workers performing on covered Federal contracts to: $10.10 per hour, beginning January 1, 2015; and beginning January 1, 2016, and annually thereafter, an amount determined by the Secretary of Labor.

Liberal and leftish economists in the audience, please explain the line in bold.

The administration wants to apply this to concessionaires as well.  This will force us to raise a $20 camping rate by $4 a night.

A Small Bit of Good News -- DC Circuits Slaps Down the IRS

The creeping regulatory / corporate state gets a setback

Faulting the IRS for attempting to “unilaterally expand its authority,” the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a district court decision tossing out the agency’s tax-preparer licensing program. Under the program, all paid tax-return preparers, hitherto unregulated, were required to pass a certification exam, pay annual fees to the agency, and complete 15 hours of continuing education each year.

The program, of course, had been backed by the major national tax-return preparers, chiefly as a way of driving up compliance costs for smaller rivals and pushing home-based “kitchen table” preparers out of business. Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, lead counsel to the tax preparers challenging the program,called the decision “a major victory for tax preparers—and taxpayers—nationwide.”

The licensing program was not only a classic example of corporate cronyism, but also of agency overreach. IRS relied on an 1884 statute empowering it to “regulate the practice of representatives or persons before [it].” Prior to 2011, IRS had never claimed that the statute gave it authority to regulate preparers. Indeed, in 2005, an IRS official testified that preparers fell outside of the law’s reach.

Perhaps a first indication that the Obama Administration strategy to pack the DC Circuit with Obama appointees may not necessarily protect his executive overreach.

PS - you gotta love the IJ.

PPS - The IRS justified its actions under "an obscure 1884 statute governing the representatives of Civil War soldiers seeking compensation for dead horses"

2014 Obamacare Headlines

Here are a few shoes that are left to drop for Obamacare:

  1. Millions complain about their doctor no longer being in-network
  2. Thousands of companies are finding it cheaper to drop coverage and pay Obamacare penalties than continuing to provide health care coverage under new rules
  3. Despite fewer exchange enrollments than expected, total Federal subsidy payments higher than expected
  4. Emergency rooms overflow with new Medicaid patients that no private doctor will take on
  5. Exchange-sold health policies, particularly the unsubsidized ones, were mainly bought by the old and sick
  6. Obama Administration works to bail out health insurers via a number of different avenues
  7. Small to mid-size companies are shocked as Obama Administration finally reveals new record-keeping requirements
  8. After 5 years of 3-4% growth, health care spending skyrockets in 2014
  9. ________ health insurance company dropping coverage in  ____(state)_______
  10. Hackers steal tens of thousands of names and social security numbers from health care exchange computers.

I will score myself as the year progresses to see how many of these we actually see.  I would not be surprised to see every one of these.

Global Warming Folly

I have not written much about climate of late because my interest, err, runs hot and cold.  As most readers know, I am in the lukewarmer camp, meaning that I accept that Co2 is a greenhouse gas but believe that catastrophic warming forecasts are greatly exaggerated (in large part by scientifically unsupportable assumptions of strong net positive feedback in the climate system).  If what I just said is in any way news to you, read this and this for background.

Anyway, one thing I have been saying for about 8 years is that when the history of the environmental movement is written, the global warming obsession will be considered a great folly.  This is because global warming has sucked all the air out of almost anything else in the environmental movement.  For God sakes, the other day the Obama Administration OK'd the wind industry killing more protected birds in a month than the oil industry has killed in its entire history.  Every day the rain forest in the Amazon is cleared away a bit further to make room for ethanol-making crops.

This picture demonstrates a great example of what I mean.   Here is a recent photo from China:

20131211_china1

 

You might reasonably say, well that pollution is from the burning of fossil fuels, and the global warming folks want to reduce fossil fuel use, so aren't they trying to fight this?  And the answer is yes, tangentially.   But here is the problem:  It is an order of magnitude or more cheaper to eliminate polluting byproducts of fossil fuel combustion than it is to eliminate fossil fuel combustion altogether.

What do I mean?  China gets a lot of pressure to reduce its carbon emissions, since it is the largest emitter in the world.  So it might build a wind project, or some solar, or some expensive high speed rail to reduce fossil fuel use.  Let's say any one of these actions reduces smog and sulfur dioxide and particulate pollution (as seen in this photo) by X through reduction in fossil fuel use.  Now, let's take whatever money we spent in, say, a wind project to get X improvement and instead invest it in emissions control technologies that the US has used for decades (coal plant scrubbers, gasoline blending changes, etc) -- invest in making fossil fuel use cleaner, not in eliminating it altogether.  This same money invested in this way would get 10X, maybe even up to 100X improvement in these emissions.

By pressuring China on carbon, we have unwittingly helped enable their pollution problem.  We are trying to get them to do 21st century things that the US can't even figure out how to do economically when in actuality what they really need to be doing is 1970's things that would be relatively easy to do and would have a much bigger impact on their citizen's well-being.

One Thing I Got Wrong About Obamacare

For several years I have feared that my high-deductible health insurance would be illegal.  I am a big believer in high deductible insurance.  First, it is real insurance, requiring that I pay day-to-day expenses but protecting me from catastrophic bill.  Second, it improves the health care system by providing incentives for consumers to actually price-shop services.

Well, I was wrong.  In fact, most people see to be getting higher deductibles than they want.

My only excuse is that the Obama Administration has acted for three years as if they hated high-deductible health coverage and were planning to make it go away.  Kathleen Sebelius has said on a number of occasions that it is not "real insurance" (she believes that insurance should actually be pre-paid medical care).  Seriously, here is an example of what she was saying:

At a White House briefing Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said some of what passes for health insurance today is so skimpy it can't be compared to the comprehensive coverage available under the law. "Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don't pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus," she said. "They're really mortgage protection, not health insurance."

She is saying this all while the policies being prepared for the exchange were exactly the kind of coverage she was speaking out against.  And she had to know -- I cannot believe a former state insurance commissioner was not looking at what policies were being prepared for the exchange.  After all, her organization made the last minute decision to hide policy pricing from the public (e.g. deleted the window shopping functionality) and this almost certainly was in response to seeing the policies being prepared for the exchange and realizing the pricing and features were not going to make people happy.

By the way, there is a certain schizophrenia here that is entirely political:  These new policies have a $10,000 deductible, but they pay 100% for condoms?    They may well be creating a combination of catastrophic insurance and pre-paid medical care that has the worst of both approaches.

Politicians lie.  But what is it about this administration that lies in ways that are inevitably going to be discovered, in just a few months?  Can they really be so focused on getting through each individual news cycle that this kind of behavior makes sense?

Connecting Government Actions to the Jobs Report

This is an update of a chart I have published a couple of times.  The Obama Administration in the past couple of years has threatened at various times that a) the sequester and b) the government shutdown would have a devastating impact on employment.  Here is the most recent job addition data (I would prefer just private job changes but this is public and private, via here).

I have helpfully annotated it with two government actions the Left claimed would negatively affect employment growth, and one item I claimed would do so.  You be the judge:

job-report-annotated2

 

The media published 6 zillion articles worrying or outright predicting in advance that the government shutdown would hurt the economy and destroy private employment.  No such thing appears to have happened.  But of course the media never, ever, ever goes back and retrospectively revisits predictions of doom gone wrong.

When Did the Senate Hit Peak Dysfunctionalality?

Kevin Drum argues that the Senate currently could not get any more dysfunctional, so unprecedented changes in the cloture rules by simply majority vote were justified.

But to my mind the peak of recent Senate dysfunctionality was when it passed the PPACA.  It passed a rushed piece of legislation 2000 pages long full of holes and errors that no one had even read.   When bribes (e.g. in Louisiana, Nebraska) were openly being offered to holdout Democratic Senators to gain their vote.

To this day, even Democratic supporters are expressing surprise at what they voted for.  Most of its key provisions (employer mandates, restrictions on individual policies) have turned out to be unenforceable.  While the Obama Administration has done plenty to screw up the exchanges, the problems began in the legislation itself that did not actually fund or specify a home for the web site development.  And because of implementation delays, we have not even gotten to the point where we can see the real problems with the law that many of us expected.

The Dems said that the filibuster made the Senate dysfunctional.  If the PPACA is what results from a "functional" Senate, I will take dysfunctional.

WOW! Incredible Contradiction in October Exchange "Enrollment" Report

I have not seen anyone notice this yet, but perhaps it is just because I have obsessed over the pathetically bad Commonwealth Fund survey whose findings were demolished by the numbers in the October report (here and here).  Well, it turns out, the October report actually proudly highlights the Commonwealth Funds report,  and quotes this line from the Commonwealth Fund in Appendix D:

Of those who have visited the Marketplace, 21 percent enrolled in a plan.

WTF are you doing including this survey finding in a report that essentially makes a laughing stock of this very finding?  Let's review what numbers we have in the October report:

  • From our chart here, the people covered by a "clicked" plan (sorry, but that is their circumlocution, not mine) were 106,185  (note this is generous because it is not actual enrollments, which will be less)
  • From the same chart, the people who were found eligible for Medicaid were 396, 261 (note this is generous as this is not actual enrollments, which will be less).
  • Finally, from the same source are total web visitors times 1.78  family members per visitor (to make our ratio apples to apples) of 47,840,217.  See here for further explanation of why this calculation is necessary

This gives us a percentage of web visitors of 1% that managed to do something kindof sortof close to enrollment.

This demonstrates just how insane the 21% figure is from the deeply flawed Commonwealth study.  So why in the hell is the Obama Administration quoting it as authoritative in their report?  Do they think anyone is dumb enough to use the 21% figure instead of the 1% figure?  Is this just providing ammunition to political hacks who want to spin the story in Obama's favor?  Did the Administration or possibly OFA actually pay for that study?

The only effect including that 21% number has on me is to say that Obama likely has a bigger problem -- If 21% of visitors THINK they enrolled and less than 1% actually did so, aren't a lot of people in for a rude shock?

Verbal Gymnastics and the Enrollment Report

I did not want this to get lost -- in an Enrollment report that used the word "enroll" or some variant 229 times, the one thing the report was missing was the actual number of people who had enrolled.  On the Medicaid side, the report said how many had been found eligible but not how many had enrolled.  On the private side, the best we get is this, which is just a classic of the political art:

106,185 (10 percent) of the 1,081,592 total Marketplace plan eligible persons have already selected a plan by clicking a button on the website page.

The obvious language would have been "106,185 enrolled in a plan" or "bought a plan."  But it does not say this, despite the fact that the Obama Administration certainly has the relevant number.  What this means is that 106,185 people ... OK, a quick aside.  It is not actually 106,185 people being successful on the web.  This is the number of people who would be covered in plans "clicked on" by visitors.  The total number of clicks is well under this -- likely something like 60,000, if the ration of 1.78 persons per application holds from the other numbers in the report.  So this is the number of people covered in something like 60,000 plans that visitors did the equivalent of putting in the online shopping cart but may not yet have paid for.

Well, maybe the number paid is really close to 106,185.  Hah!  I can disprove that quite simply:  We were not told the number.  QED it sucks.

Why You Should Be Very Skeptical of Low-Sample-Size Advocacy Group Polling

A while back, I pointed out this poll from some group called the Commonwealth Fund.  In mid-October, on average about 15-18 days into the exchange process, they polled a group of non-corporate-insured adults (e.g. individual market or uninsured) about whether they had visited an exchange and what had been their experience.

The finding that stood out to me was that 21% of the people they interviewed that said they had visited an exchange reported that they had signed up for a policy (from the wording of the question, this probably includes both private policies and Medicaid signups).

I thought this seemed crazy-high.  And now new data from the Administration is confirming it.   The Administration is reporting about 106,000 "selected a plan" in October -- a very generous definition since it includes people who put a plan in their shopping cart but did not purchase it.  Not a definition of a sale that Amazon.com would ever use.    Further, another 400,000 or so were "found eligible" for Medicaid, whatever that means though it sounds well short of "enrolled."  So call it generously 500,000 people by the end of October.  The other key bit we need is that the Administration is reporting about 27 million unique visitors to these sites.  So at best we are looking at 1.9% of exchange visitors kind-of-sort-of-maybe having done something that approaches being enrolled.

This puts the Commonwealth Fund polling an entire order of magnitude off, at 21% vs. 1.9%.  And remember their survey occurred in the middle of the month, when the web site was not even working, and one can assume that successful enrollments were back-end loaded in the month.  The CF was nice enough to respond to my emails but were unable to explain the discrepancy, other than the sample size was low making the results unreliable.  So why the hell do it, and then put out a press release?

One explanation for part of the discrepancy may be in those who have created user accounts (normally a trivial task on a private site but a Herculean accomplishment on Healthcare.gov) but have not actually purchased a plan.  The Obama Administration says that there are about a million of these, so in addition to the 1.9% that put a plan in their shopping cart, there are another 3.7% that created a user account and gave the Feds enough info to assess subsidy eligibility, but who have not selected a plan.  Remember, that this was the minimum hurdle the Obama Administration originally set even to see insurance plan prices, and is still the minimum hurdle to get a subsidy quote.  It will be interesting to see the conversion rate of people once they find they are not getting free stuff from Uncle Sugar.

Even so, this only adds up to 5.6% of people who visited the exchange and had any sort of success (in most cases far short of enrollment) at all.  Way short of 21%.  Remember that we you see "studies" like this in the future.

It Turns Out That Democrats Were Responsible for the Watergate Coverup

The Washington Post has a very good article on failures of Obamacare exchange implementation.  The Left is finding the article to be convincing evidence that the failures were all ... wait for it .. the Republican's fault.

Every single failure, save one, in the article (we'll come back to that one in a minute) was due to the Administration's fear of Republican criticism.  So results were hidden, bad decisions were made, and key steps were delayed until after the last election.  All because the Obama Administration appears to incredibly thin-skinned about criticism.

But blaming these decisions on Republicans and other Obamacare opponents is absurd.  One could easily say that the bad decisions made by the Nixon administration to cover up Watergate and other campaign shenanigans were driven by a fear of political reprisals by Democrats, but no one would be crazy enough to blame the Democrats for them.  It reminds me of the folks who wanted to blame failures in the Vietnam war on the anti-war movement.  But that is exactly what is going on here, and the amazing thing is just how many people seem willing to enable and support this incredible evasion.

The one other example that Republicans are supposedly to blame is latched onto by Kevin Drum, among others, quite eagerly.  Apparently, the PPACA legislation, which was written entirely by Democrats and passed without a single Republican vote, failed to actually provide financing for an enormous new organization to build and run the exchanges.  And, amazingly enough, Republicans refused to fix the Democrat's problem with the Democrat-written legislation in a law they hated and wanted repealed.  So the Obama Administration had to build the exchanges within the existing CMS organization, which botched the implementation.  And for THAT, apparently Republicans are to blame for it all.

Of course, beyond the just bizarre "buck stops anywhere but here" mentality, there are other problems with this logic.  First, it is hard to believe that a brand new greenfield organization run entirely by Obama's policy folks and completely without any systems experience would have done better than an organization that at least has some health care systems experience.  Further, would the schedule really have been aided by having to start an entirely new organization from scratch?  Finally, it is clear from the article that a large part of the reason for moving the work to CMS was not just money but a desire to avoid transparency, to bury and hide the work.  Even had the financing mistake** not been made, one gets the sense that Obama might have buried the effort inside CMS anyway.

In fact, this is the overriding theme from the entire article.  Every decision made for the Obamacare implementation seemed to be driven by political expediency first, avoiding transparency and accountability second, and actual results last.  It is well worth reading yourself to see what conclusions you draw.

 

** I am not entirely convinced it was a mistake.  Remember, the Democrats were scrambling to make the PPACA seem budget neutral.  They might easily have left out key bits of financing they know they needed, thinking they could hide the appropriation later.   A plan that died when Scott Brown was unexpectedly elected.

 

Obama Administration Proposes to Increase the Amount of Land that Can Be Used As A Pawn in the Next Budget Fight

Via the ARRA:

On October 31, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a speech at the National Press Club, "If Congress doesn't step up to act to protect some of these important places that have been identified by communities and people throughout the country, then the President will take action. There's no question that if Congress doesn't act, we will."  Jewell was referring to designating huge swaths of public lands as National Monuments.  When she calls on Congress to “step up,” she may be ignoring that local citizens, including some recreationists and businesses near public lands where Wilderness or other special designations are being considered, may not support such action.

Just what we need - even more land that the Department of Interior can block with gates and guards next time they are unhappy with their budget.

The Two Lame Answers Obama Supporters Are Giving Those of Us Who Have Had Our Health Insurance Cancelled

1.  The first Obama Administration response to people (like myself) who have had their health insurance cancelled because of Obamacare and who are facing much higher future premiums is that many of can expect a subsidy.  Do you realize how awful this is?  Basically they are acknowledging that millions of people who paid for their own health care in the past will now be getting taxpayer money.  Essentially, a huge and unnecessary increase in government dependency.

2.  The other equally awful Obama Administration answer is that our new health coverage will be more expensive because it will be "better".  First, there is no evidence of this -- early returns are that people are paying more for less.  Second, though, this is horribly arrogant.  A $200,000 Maserati sedan is likely "better" than my car I am driving, but given its price I would consider myself worse off if forced to buy a Maserati.  In the same sense, forcing me to by expensive insurance options I don't want is not "better", even if I am making choices Obama's advisers would not make for themselves.  I spent a lot of time shopping for health insurance and running numbers on various cases and picking the best plan for me, and am insulted that Obama does not respect my decision.

By the way, I will remind you of what I said way back in 2007 about government health care proposals

Americans are unbelievably charitable people, to the extent that they will put up with a lot of taxation and even losses of freedoms through government coercion to help people out.

However, in nearly every other case of government-coerced charity, the main effect is "just" an increase in taxes.  Lyndon Johnson wants to embark on a futile attempt to try to provide public housing to the poor?  Our taxes go up, a lot of really bad housing is built, but at least my housing did not get any worse.  Ditto food programs -- the poor might get some moldy cheese from a warehouse, but my food did not get worse.  Ditto welfare.  Ditto social security, unemployment insurance,and work programs.

But health care is different.... what is different about many of the health care proposals on the table is that everyone, not just the poor will get this same crappy level of treatment.  It would be like a public housing program where everyone's house is torn down and every single person must move into public housing.  That is universal state-run health care.  Ten percent of America gets pulled up, 90% of America gets pulled down, possibly way down.

IRS Argues Your Tax Return is Just Like a Dead Horse

Normally this would be a good Friday story, but you can't always control when Washington is going to bring the crazy.

The Obama administration on Tuesday defended its effort to regulate the tax return preparation business for the first time in U.S. history, basing its case largely on a 19th century law dealing with horses lost or killed in the Civil War....

[the Obama Administration attorney] explained that the administration sees the "Horse Act of 1884" as providing ample authority for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to regulate the tens of thousands of preparers who fill out millions of Americans' federal tax returns.

Here is the logic, such that it is

A post-war industry emerged of agents who would press war loss claims for a fee, usually a percentage of the claim collected. Soon, claim values were being fraudulently inflated.

In response, the government started regulating these intermediaries, barring unscrupulous ones and certifying honest ones as "enrolled agents," a title that is still used today by people who represent clients in matters before the IRS.

The IRS is arguing that tax return preparers represent their customers in much the same way that enrolled agents do, so the agency should be able to expand regulation to include preparers.

Note that tax preparers are not actually IRS enrolled agents, they just argue they are kind of sort of like them (in that they both deal with tax returns, I suppose).  But enrolled agents explicitly act as an intermediary between citizens and the government in disputes and claims.  This is not the role of tax preparers.  They merely charge a fee to fill out time-consuming and confusion paperwork.  My tax accountant has never once had any conversations with the IRS on my behalf, nor should he.  I would engage an attorney for that.

Corleone-Style Government

This is pretty amazing -- a FOIA and a subsequent string of emails between a USA Today reporter and the Department of Justice.  Like any email string, you need to go to the end and then read up.  Essentially, the DOJ tells the reporter that they have information that undermines the reporter's story but won't tell him what it is.  Instead, they threaten to hold it until after the reporter has published, and then give the information to another media outlet in order to embarrass the reporter, all because the reporter is "biased" which in Obama Administration speak means that he is an outlier that does not dutifully fall in line with the Administration's talking points.

My guess is that this is a cheap bluff to prevent a story from being published that the DOJ does not want to see in the public domain.  Even if it is not a bluff, this is a horrendous approach to releasing information to the public.

Meet the Person Who Wants to Run Your Life -- And Obama Wants to Help Her

I am a bit late on this, but like most libertarians I was horrified by this article in the Mail Online about Obama Administration efforts to nudge us all into "good" behavior.  This is the person, Maya Shankar, who wants to substitute her decision-making priorities for your own

article-2381478-1B11DB61000005DC-332_308x425

 

If the notion -- that a 20-something person who has apparently never held a job in the productive economy is  telling you she knows better what is good for you -- is not absurd on its face, here are a few other reasons to distrust this plan.

  • Proponents first, second, and third argument for doing this kind of thing is that it is all based on "science".  But a lot of the so-called science is total crap.  Medical literature is filled with false panics that are eventually retracted.  And most social science findings are frankly garbage.  If you have some behavior you want to nudge, and you give a university a nice grant, I can guarantee you that you can get a study supporting whatever behavior you want to foster or curtail.  Just look at the number of public universities in corn-growing states that manage to find justifications for ethanol subsidies.  Recycling is a great example, mentioned several times in the article.  Research supports the sensibility of recycling aluminum and steel, but says that recycling glass and plastic and paper are either worthless or cost more in resources than they save.  But nudgers never-the-less push for recycling of all this stuff.  Nudging quickly starts looking more like religion than science.
  • The 300 million people in this country have 300 million different sets of priorities and personal circumstances.  It is the worst hubris to think that one can make one decision that is correct for everyone.  Name any supposedly short-sighted behavior -- say, not getting health insurance when one is young -- and I can name numerous circumstances where this is a perfectly valid choice and risk to take.
  • The justification for this effort is social science research about how people manage decisions that involve short-term and long-term consequences

Some behavioral scientists believe they can improve people's self-control by understanding the relationship between short term memory, intelligence and delay discounting.

This has mostly been used to counter compulsive gambling and substance abuse, but Shankar's entry into government science circles may indicate that health insurance objectors and lapsed recyclers could soon fall into a similar category

I am sure there is a grain of truth in this -- all of us likely have examples of where we made a decision to avoid short term pain that we regretted.  But it is hilarious to think that government officials will somehow do better.  As I have written before, the discount rate on pain applied by most legislators is infinite.  They will do any crazy ridiculous thing that has horrible implications five or ten years from now if they can just get through today.  Why else do government bodies run massive sustained deficits and give away unsustainable pension and retirement packages except that they take no consideration of future consequences.  And it is these people Maya wants to put in charge of teaching me about delay discounting?

  • It probably goes without saying, but nudging quickly becomes politicized.  Is nudging 20-something health men to buy health insurance really in their best interests, or does it help keep an important Obama program from failing?

Postscript:  Here is a great example of just how poorly the government manages delay discounting.  In these cases, municipalities are saddling taxpayers with almost certainly bankrupting future debt to avoid paying any short-term costs.

Texas school districts have made use of another controversial financing technique: capital appreciation bonds. Used to finance construction, these bonds defer interest payments, often for decades. The extension saves the borrower from spending on repayment right now, but it burdens a future generation with significantly higher costs. Some capital appreciation bonds wind up costing a municipality ten times what it originally borrowed. From 2007 through 2011 alone, research by the Texas legislature shows, the state’s municipalities and school districts issued 700 of these bonds, raising $2.3 billion—but with a price tag of $23 billion in future interest payments. To build new schools, one fast-growing school district, Leander, has accumulated $773 million in outstanding debt through capital appreciation bonds.

Capital appreciation bonds have also ignited controversy in California, where school districts facing stagnant tax revenues and higher costs have used them to borrow money without any immediate budget impact. One school district in San Diego County, Poway Unified, won voter approval to borrow $100 million by promising that the move wouldn’t raise local taxes. To live up to that promise, Poway used bonds that postponed interest payments for 20 years. But future Poway residents will be paying off the debt—nearly $1 billion, all told—until 2051. After revelations that a handful of other districts were also using capital appreciation bonds, the California legislature outlawed them earlier this year. Other states, including Texas, are considering similar bans.

Or here is another example, of New York (the state that is home to the mayor who tries to nudge his residents on everything from soft drinks to salt)  using trickery to consume 25 years of revenue in one year.

Other New York deals engineered without voter say-so include a $2.7 billion bond offering in 2003, backed by 25 years’ worth of revenues from the state’s gigantic settlement with tobacco companies. To circumvent borrowing limits, the state created an independent corporation to issue the bonds and then used the money from the bond sale to close a budget deficit—instantly consuming most of the tobacco settlement, which now had to be used to pay off the debt.

By the way, I recommend the whole linked article.  It is a pretty broad survey of how state and local governments are building up so much debt, both on and off the books, and how politicians bend every law just to be able to spend a few more dollars today.

Obama Administration Saving Money by Eliminating Paragraph Breaks

I checked out the government web site today that supposedly offers advice to small businesses on Obamacare compliance.  Of course, I found nothing on my main question, in part because the IRS cannot figure out what it wants to do (my question is on requirements and penalties vis a vis seasonal workers).

I was presented with a number of other government blog posts and articles, including "8 Ways Your Business Can Get Ready for the 2013 Tourist Season."  Curious what the government would counsel on this topic, I clicked through.  Obviously, there is a paragraph break and carriage return sequester.  I cannot get the energy to read this kind of unformatted text.  The advice is actually OK, and ironically one of the eight is that one should consider getting into the business I am in.

New Education Department Guidelines: Violating 3 Constitutional Amendments Simultaneously

I have been meaning to write on the new Obama Administration guidelines to colleges for treating speech as sexual assault and reducing the due process rights of accused students.  But George Will does such a great job I am going to let him do it.

Responding to what it considers the University of Montana’s defective handling of complaints about sexual assaults, OCR, in conjunction with the Justice Department, sent the university a letter intended as a “blueprint” for institutions nationwide when handling sexual harassment, too. The letter, sent on May 9, encourages (see below) adoption of speech codes — actually, censorship regimes — to punish students who:

Make “sexual or dirty jokes” that are “unwelcome.” Or disseminate “sexual rumors” (even if true) that are “unwelcome.” Or make “unwelcome” sexual invitations. Or engage in the “unwelcome” circulation or showing of “e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.” Or display or distribute “sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials” that are “unwelcome.”

It takes some work to simultaneously violate this many Constitutional protections in one letter, but the Obama Administration continues to demonstrate its heroic determination to ignore that aging document.

By the way, I cannot find any story about a single university President in the whole country who has objected to these rules.  What a bunch a spineless conformists we running universities.

A few things I would add to Will's comments:

  1. I have written about this emerging "right not to be offended" on University campuses for some time.  This is the Obama Administration trying to codify this nutty BS "right" into law.
  2. There is no way in a rule of law where one can have a law where only the opinion of the victim matters in determining culpability.  To some extent, the loss of due process rights are almost secondary here -- if it is a crime if the victim says it is (ie they were offended), then what defense can one have, anyway?
  3. Given that everyone takes offense to something nearly every day, this law would quickly cause everyone to be kicked out of school.  The Venn diagram of speech that is offensive either to, say, fundamentalist Christians or Muslims and to radical feminists would encompass essentially all of speech related to sex.    Since everyone will not be kicked out of school, the rules will almost certainly be enforced disparately, likely punishing speech with which the university administration disagrees but being far less aggressive in pursuing "unwanted" sexual speech with which it might disagree.

Cyprus and the Rule of Law

There was no particularly good way to resolve the banking mess in Cyprus.  But what worries me about how things played out is that there appears to be no rule of law that applies to bank failure in Europe.  There should be some clear principle that guides a bank resolution - e.g. equity holders and bondholders get wiped out first, then uninsured depositors, then insured depositors.  Or perhaps there is some ratio of pain between insured and uninsured depositors.

It is clear that no such rule exists across Europe (or if it does, it does not enjoy any particular force such that folks feel free to ignore it in real time).  That is the real danger here.  Results, however bad, should be transparent and predictable in advance, which is far from what happened in Cyprus.  Without a rule of law, one gets a rule of men -- in other words, rules are set by individual whim, often based on which government or corporate interests wield the most influence.

Think I am being too cynical?  Here is a detail that was new to me about the depositor haircuts in Cyprus:

A few weeks ago, the Central Bank of Cyprus published a curious set of "clarifications for the better understanding of the resolution measures." The principle of a bail-in—that uninsured creditors should suffer losses before taxpayers are on the hook—turns out to contain a few lacunae. "Financial institutions, the government, municipalities, municipal councils and other public entities, insurance companies, charities, schools, and educational institutions" will be excused from contributing to the depositor haircuts, though insurers later were removed from the exempt list.

Apparently, individual parties are lining up for special exemptions as well (much like connected corporations did with the Obama Administration to get exemptions from early provisions of the PPACA).  Essentially, all bank losses will be assigned to depositors who don't have access to powerful friends in the government.

Undermining Your Own Argument

Apparently Leftist blogger Meg Lanker faked a rape threat against herself in an attempt to Conservatives look bad.  OK, this is sad and pathetic, even more so because it is almost guaranteed that her political allies will first forgive her, and then defend her actions as some sort of brave and necessary action to fight patriarchal... uh, whatever.    It is also an incredibly dangerous action at a university, given that the Obama Administration has demanded that schools eliminate due process from on-campus sexual assault allegations and tilt their judicial process, such that it is, against accused male students.  Had she done this at, say, Yale and actually framed a particular guy, that guy would probably be kicked out of school already.

I won't add any more critique of Ms. Lanker.  Just assume that I am appalled by her actions.  But let me raise an issue with the Conservative critique of Ms. Lanker:  No one seems to be able to resist the temptation to comment on her looks and her weight, two things that (to my knowledge) are absolutely irrelevant to the discussion.  They are just completely ad hominem.  Stacy McCain engages in it, for example.   The posts on this Facebook page (which perhaps is a hoax itself, given the ungrammatical and frankly absurd wording of the header phrase) are even more abusive in this same vein.  Seriously folks, it is rather undermining to your argument that Lanker was exaggerating the boorishness of men with her fake threat when you jump on her Facebook page and engage in boorish ad hominem attacks.

Update:  Holy moly did I get the wrong link for the Stacy MCain post.  I will leave the link above as-is because it is kind of funny.  I had this link on my clipboard because I wanted to suggest them to my teenage daughter as a way to deflect unwanted (by dad) male attention.  The Stacy McCain link is here.

 

Re-Inflating the Bubble

We all know from progressive and Democratic writers the the Community Reinvestment Act and other efforts to offer cheap home loans to people without good credit had nothing to do with the mortgage industry offering too many loans to people without good credit.

So we should not be in the least bit worried that the Obama Administration is calling for more mortgages to be given to people with weaker credit, while sub-prime auto loans are simply booming.  Because we have learned from Iceland and Greece and Cyprus that the best way to deal with a debt crisis is by encouraging consumers to take on more debt, and the best way to respond to an asset bubble is to try to re inflate the bubble.

All of this, of course, is simply crazy talk.  The people who are involved HAVE to know this won't end well, because the most recent example of this leading to disaster is only 4 years old.  Hell, the people doing this were in office when this same approach fell apart last time.  But politicians refuse to face some pain now to avoid huge pain in the future - for politicians, the discount rate on pain is infinite.

But A Minimum Wage Hike is A-OK?

I don't know how I got onto blogging all Steven Rattner, all the time, but here I go again.  Mr. Rattner is complaining that the sequester is costing his son a chance at a government internship for which he had wanted to apply.

So perhaps Mr. Rattner's son could go work in a productive field instead?  Oops, probably not, because rising minimum wages and Obama Administration crack-downs on unpaid private internships have made it harder for all the rest of us to get our little preciouses an internship.  I will bet any amount of money that the number of internships killed by minimum wage laws is at least two orders of magnitude larger than the number of internships killed by the sequester.

And besides, we should be thrilled that  one less young person is having their formative organizational experiences (from conflict resolution to productivity expectations) in government.

Oh, and by the way, that bit about the Obama Administration cracking down on unpaid internships?  Well, that only applies to you private employers who are teaching useless skills like innovation and wealth creation.  Jobs that teach Congress's organizational and productivity secrets don't have to be paid because of all the valuable lessons taught.

Let Them Eat Trinkets

Steven Rattner, investment banker and former member of the Obama Administration,  is terrified that under a proposed law companies will be able to raise money without investment bankers.

Most troublesome is the legalization of “crowd funding,” the ability of start-up companies to raise capital from small investors on the Internet. While such lightly regulated capital raising has existed for years, until now, “investors” could receive only trinkets and other items of small value, similar to the way public television raises funds. As soon as regulations required to implement the new rules are completed, people who invest money in start-ups through sites similar to Kickstarter will be able to receive a financial interest in the soliciting company, much like buying shares on the stock exchange. But the enterprises soliciting these funds will hardly be big corporations like Wal-Mart or Exxon; they will be small start-ups with no track records.

This is absolutely, classically representative of the technocratic arrogance of the Obama Administration and the investment bankers that inhabit it.  I have three quick thoughts:

  1. Rattner's concern for individual investors comes rather late.  After all, he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters.
  2. God forbid investors get actual, you know, ownership in a company for their capital rather than just trinkets.  This is so bizarrely patronizing that I had to read it twice just to make sure I wasn't missing something.  But no, he is explicitly preferring that you and I get trinkets rather than ownership  (ownership, apparently, to be reserved for millionaire insiders like himself).
  3. We have truly entered the corporate state when leftish opinion makers argue that large corporations like Exxon and Wal-Mart get preferential access to capital and that smaller startups that might compete with them be shut out of the market.

I predict that over that Internet entrepreneurs running such crowd-sourcing sites would develop reputation management and review tools for investors (similar to those at Amazon and eBay).  Over time, it may be that these become far more trustworthy than current credit agency reports or investment bank recommendations.  After all, which do you trust more -- a 5-star Amazon review with 35 responses or a Goldman Sachs "buy" recommendation on an IPO like Facebook or Groupon?  Besides, it would take a very long time, like eternity, for fraud losses in a crowd-sourcing site to equal 1/100 of the investor losses to heavily regulated Bernie Madoff.