Tag: Ezra Klein

Delaying the Employer Mandate Requires Delaying All of Obamacare

The IRS has announced it will postpone the start date of Obamacare’s “employer mandate” from 2014 to 2015. Most of the reaction has focused on how this move is an implicit acknowledgement that Obamacare is harmful, cannot work, and will prove a liability for Democrats going into the November 2014 elections. The Washington Post called the decision a “fresh setback” and a “significant interruption” to the law’s implementation. John McDonough, a prominent supporter of the law, observes, “You’ve given the employer community a sense of confidence that maybe they can kill this. If I were an employer, I would smell blood in the water.” When a die-hard Obamacare supporter like Ezra Klein says the employer mandate should be repealed, clearly things are not going well.

While all of this is true, it misses the two most significant implications of this momentous development:

First, the IRS’s unilateral decision to delay the employer mandate is the latest indication that we do not live under a Rule of Law, but under a Rule of Rulers who write and rewrite laws at whim, without legitimate authority, and otherwise compel behavior to suit their ends. Congress gave neither the IRS nor the president any authority to delay the imposition of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate. In the section of the law creating that mandate, Congress included several provisions indicating the mandate will take effect in 2014. In case those provisions were not clear enough, Section 4980H further clarifies:

(d) EFFECTIVE DATE.—The amendments made by this section shall apply to months beginning after December 31, 2013.

It is hard to see how the will of the people’s elected representatives – including President Obama, who signed that effective date into law – could have been expressed more clearly, or how it could be clearer that the IRS has no legitimate power to delay the mandate. Again, Ezra Klein: “This is a regulatory end-run of the legislative process. The law says the mandate goes into effect in 2014, but the administration has decided to give it until 2015 by simply refusing to enforce the penalties.”

The Old Infrastructure Excuse for Bigger Deficits

Washington Post columnist/blogger Ezra Klein recently echoed the latest White House rationale for additional “stimulus” spending for 2013-15 and postponing spending restraint (including sequestration) until after the 2014 elections. Klein argues for “a 10- or 12-year deficit reduction plan that includes a substantial infrastructure investment in the next two or three years.” In other words, a “deficit-reduction plan” that increases deficits until the next presidential election year.

Citing Larry Summers (who similarly promoted Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan while head of the National Economic Council) Klein says, “There’s a far better case right now for being an infrastructure hawk than a deficit hawk.”

“Deficit hawks tend to [worry that] … too much government borrowing can, in a healthy economy, begin to “crowd out” private borrowing. That means interest rates rise and the economy slows… That’s not happening right now. In real terms — which means after accounting for inflation — the U.S. government can borrow for five, seven or 10 years at less than nothing… . That’s extraordinary. It means markets are so nervous that they will literally pay us to keep their money safe for them.”

If low yields on Treasury and agency bonds simply reflected investor anxiety (unlike stock prices),  rather than quantitative easing, then why has the Federal Reserve been spending $85 billion a month buying Treasury and agency bonds? Despite those Fed efforts, Treasury bond yields have lately been moving up rather smartly – even on TIPS (inflation-protected securities). The yield on 10-year bonds rose by a half percentage point since early May. It is not credible to assume, as Summers does in a paper with Brad DeLong, that today’s yields would remain as low as they have been even in the face of substantially more federal borrowing for infrastructure. Even the Fed’s appetite for Treasury IOUs has limits. 

A second worry of deficit hawks, according to Klein and Summers, “is a moral concern about forcing our children to pay the bill for the things we bought… .These are real, worthwhile concerns. But in this economy, both make a stronger case for investing in infrastructure than paying down debt.”  Paying down debt?!  Nobody is talking about paying debt. That would require a budget surplus.  The debate is only about borrowing slightly less (sequestration) or substantially more (Obama).

The Summers-Klein argument for larger deficits is that interest rates are very low, so why not borrow billions more for a “substantial investment” in highways, bridges and airports?  Summers says, “just as you burden future generations when you accumulate debt, you also burden future generations when you defer maintenance.”  This might make sense if there was any link between government tangible assets and federal liabilities.  In reality, though, this smells like a red herring. Politicians always say they want to borrow more to build or rebuild highways and bridges.  But this is not how borrowed money is spent, particularly when it’s federal borrowing.

Accumulation of federal debt since 2008 − including the 2009 stimulus plan − had virtually nothing to do with investment. Nearly 90 percent of the  2009 “stimulus” was devoted to consumption – $430.7 billion in transfer payments to individuals, more than $300 billion in refundable tax credits, $18.4 billion in subsidies (e.g., solar and electric car lobbies), more pay and perks for government workers, etc. Stanford’s John Taylor shows that even the capital grants to states − ostensibly intended for infrastructure projects − were used to reduce state borrowing and increase transfer payments such as Medicaid.

In the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), the closest thing we have to a measure of “infrastructure” is government investment in structures.  Federal borrowing in the NIPA accounts rose from $493.5 billion in 2008 to $1,177.8  in 2010, yet total federal, state and local investment in structures was unchanged − $310.1 billion in 2008 and $309.3 billion in 2010. Such investment was lower by 2012, but not because federal borrowing was “only” $932.8 billion that year.  

NIPA accounts show only a $12.9 billion federal investment in nondefense structures in 2012 and $8.5 billion for defense structures. By contrast, transfer payments accounted for 61.7 percent of federal spending in 2012, consumption for 28.2 percent, interest 8.5 percent and subsidies 1.6 percent.   Consumption is mostly salaries and benefits. Transfer payments did include more than $607 billion in grants to states and localities in 2011, according to a new CBO study, but 81.7 percent of such grants were for health, income security and education, leaving only 10 percent for transportation. Transportation accounted only 3.2 percent of total federal spending in 2012 and nine percent of “discretionary” spending.

In short, direct federal infrastructure investment plus grants to states add up to only a little over $80 billion out of a budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion. If federal borrowing had anything to do with $80 billion a year in federal infrastructure spending, then we wouldn’t have been borrowing about a trillion a year for the past four years. 

Klein’s rephrasing of Summers’ rerun of the 2009 “infrastructure” excuse is not a plausible argument for increased federal debt. It is, at best, an argument for ending the chronic misuse of borrowed money to pay for transfer payments and government consumption so that we could prudently reallocate a greater share to transportation infrastructure.  


Washington’s Range of Policy Options

Ezra Klein writes in the Washington Post that congressional Republicans have moved to the right on such issues as health care, stimulus spending, and a carbon tax, forcing Democrats to move to the center to find common ground. And thus:

If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.

His argument is that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich used to support “the basic architecture of the Affordable Care Act,” John McCain (R-AZ) supported a cap-and-trade bill, George W. Bush pushed a stimulus bill in 2008—but now Republicans don’t want to support any of those policies. So, he says, Democrats have moved to the right, away from what they really want, like single-payer health care, command-and-control environmental regulation, and no cuts to entitlements plus massive new spending. He says that leads to center-right policy.

But another way to look at it is this: on his scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents bigger government and 10 represents smaller government, what’s happening? Is government getting bigger or smaller? Take health care: if 1 represents national health care and 10 represents a free market in health care, then surely with income tax preferences for health insurance, Medicare, the prescription drug benefit, and government paying for more than half of all health care, we were at least at 5 by 2009. Everybody from Michael Cannon to Joe Biden thinks Obamacare is a BFD on the road to total government control of medicine. So let’s say it put us at 3 or 4.

You can see the same pattern in the other issues Klein discusses. Carbon tax, cap and trade, stimulus spending—they all make government bigger than it is now. So when Republicans endorse any of those policies, they are playing on bigger-government territory. Now, Republicans say they’re not going to do that any more. So Klein’s complaint is not really that Republicans are insisting on “8, 9, or 10” policies; they’re just no longer proposing policies in the 3 and 4 range, hoping that Democrats will agree to make government only a little bigger, rather than way bigger. Sounds like maybe the debate is moving back toward the 50-yard line, instead of taking place entirely in Democratic territory.

Note: Klein talked only about economic issues, so I’ve done the same. There’s a clear trend in a liberal/libertarian direction on social issues such as marriage and marijuana. And Republicans who propose further restricting immigration or getting involved in yet another Mideast war are hardly advocates of small government. This analysis deals only with fiscal, regulatory, and entitlements issues.

A Question for Medicaid Deniers

A lot of people are writing about the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment results, released yesterday, which found zero evidence that expanding Medicaid to the most vulnerable people targeted by ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion improves their physical health. Here’s my take on the study and its implications. Megan McArdle, Shikha Dalmia, Avik Roy, and Peter Suderman are making solid contributions to the debate. Zeke Emanuel gets points for making an admission against interest (“It’s disappointing”). Points also to Jennifer Rubin for her take on what the OHIE says about ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion: “If there had been a giant trial of a heart medication with lousy results we wouldn’t proceed in mass-marketing the drug; we might even take it off the shelves.” Not a bad idea. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas call for more such experiments. Yes! Let’s have more randomized, controlled trials of the effects of Medicaid, on pre-ObamaCare populations, in big states like California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, where we can harnass even more statistical power. The only unethical thing would be to keep spending trillions on this program without knowing whether it’s even effective (much less cost-effective).

Others are making less-solid contributions. Here’s a question for them.

Since the OHIE shows that Medicaid makes no difference in the diagnosis or use of medication to treat high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and has no effect on blood-sugar levels despite increasing diabetes diagnoses and medication use, would you support eliminating Medicaid coverage for these screenings and medications?

If not, why not?

Scapegoating ObamaCare

Here’s how Ezra Klein spins Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-MT) preditions of an ObamaCare “train wreck”:

The GOP can try and keep the implementation from being done effectively, in part by refusing to authorize the needed funds. Then they can capitalize on the problems they create to weaken the law, or at least weaken Democrats up for reelection in 2014.

In other words, step one: Create problems for Obamacare. Step two: Blame Obamacare for the problems. Step 3: Political profit!

It never ceases to amaze me how people who want government to plan our lives are horrified when government then interferes with their plans. Here’s one way to summarize Klein’s attempt to blame ObamaCare’s opponents for ObamaCare’s failures:

Step one: Pass a law the public opposes.

Step two: Act surprised when the public continues to oppose it.

Step three: Blame the public for the law’s failures. 


Step one: Enact an immense law requiring lots of implementation funding.

Step two: Don’t include any implementation funding.

Step three: Blame opponents for not funding the implementation. 

Ooh, this is fun:

Step one: Give government new powers.

Step two: Express frustration when those powers fall into the hands of your political opponents.

Step three: Put your political opponents in camps.

I wonder if Mike Pompeo will pen a letter to Klein, too.

The Only Ones Who Misunderstand ObamaCare More than Its Detractors Are Its Supporters

Ezra Klein has a post arguing that ObamaCare is unpopular because the public doesn’t understand it. It would be more accurate to say that ObamaCare is popular with people like Klein because they don’t understand it.

Klein notes an apparent negative correlation between the popularity of certain provisions of the law and public awareness of those provisions. If only more people knew about the good stuff in ObamaCare – you know, the subsidies to seniors and the provisions forcing insurers to cover the sick – more people would like it. But the polls showing public support for those provisions don’t ask respondents whether they think the benefits of those provisions are worth the costs. They only ask about the benefits. Since none of those provisions is a benefits-only proposition, those polls tell us essentially nothing.

For example, last year a Reason-Rupe survey asked respondents about laws forcing insurers to cover the sick. What made this poll interesting is that it was the first poll in 18 years to ask respondents to weigh the costs of such laws against the benefits. The below graph (from my latest Cato paper, “50 Vetoes”) displays the results.

Reducing the quality of care is actually the most likely negative effect of banning higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. (Don’t take my word for it. The authors of the law knew those provisions reduce the quality of care, and so included an awful lot of regulations that they hope will prevent that from happening.) When people learn about this negative effect, they oppose those provisions by a ratio of five to one. Greater public understanding of ObamaCare increases public opposition to the law.

Klein also writes:

Obamacare can have a hard implementation in 2014, but President Obama isn’t going to repeal it or even lose reelection over it (though congressional Democrats might).

If he means there is no way the law will make things so bad that Obama would have to repeal it, I again think he doesn’t understand the law itself or the challenges of imposing a law like this on a hostile public. I cannot predict that President Obama will repeal his own signature domestic-policy achievement. Indeed, the odds are against it. But we cannot rule it out, and I have already predicted the president will at least sign major revisions to this law before he leaves office.

Where I agree with Klein is when he predicts that ObamaCare will become much harder to repeal if people (in particular the health care industry) get hooked on the trillions of dollars of new taxpayer subsidies that begin to flow in 2014:

My guess is the law’s top-line polling will change a bit, but the bigger change will be that the intensity of its supporters will come to match that of its detractors. All of a sudden, a lot of people will have something to lose if Obamacare is ever repealed.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t an argument that ObamaCare will survive because it’s a good law, but because people will be dependent on it.

This is No Way to Organize a Society

Congratulating them in only the narrowest sense, Ezra Klein credits Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) for their success in obstructing President Obama the last four years. This has garnered endorsements for Mitt Romney from newspapers that see him as more capable of eliciting cooperation from these congressional leaders.

Nevermind how much this was an articulate strategy distinct from insisting on their own priorities. How outrageous that these men should be rewarded for obstruction, the Obama supporter fumes! And if you’re a Republican, you smugly chuckle.

And none of these politicized characters need consider U.S. government policies regarding military spending, entitlement spending, transportation spending, education spending, warrantless wiretapping, drone war, monetary policy, privacy, regulation, tax rates, tax incidence, waste, fraud, abuse, agriculture subsidies, endangered species, energy policy, or the drug war (What did I forget?–plenty). The differences between the two parties are minimal.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. But while you’re hanging on this strange contest to control a big chunk of your life the next four years, the valets are stripping your car.

The current state of affairs–this political American Idol–is not God-given. Restoring the federal government to its proper role, and limiting states to theirs, we might once again take control and decide for ourselves how our wealth is apportioned and how our lives are run.

People on both sides think that this election is do-or-die, hopping on stage to take part in the play. But politics is no way to organize a society. Exeunt.