Government Sends Wrong Tax Form to Nearly One Million Obamacare Enrollees

Fresh off another victory lap last week, Obamacare supporters awoke last Friday to the news that the government had given nearly one million exchange enrollees incorrect tax forms that could significantly affect their tax returns. 800,000 enrollees in the federal exchange and roughly 100,000 in California were given the wrong forms, called 1095-As, which provide a monthly account of the premium subsidies exchange enrollees receive. The government uses that information to determine that the subsidy amounts are correct (although a pending Supreme Court case raises questions about the legality of any subsidies offered through the federal exchange). Enrollees using the wrong information when filing their taxes would make it impossible for the government to verify that they got the right amount of subsidies.

Government officials will now try to remedy their mistake by sending out new forms to the affected customers. These tax documents contained the wrong price for the ‘benchmark plan’, the second-lowest cost silver plan available that is used to calculate the exchange subsidy amount. A post on the HealthCare.gov blog explains that the erroneous forms included the benchmark plan premiums for 2015 instead of 2014, which led to the wrong subsidy amount being displayed on the forms people use to file their taxes. The errors are not confined to one area, so incorrect forms were sent throughout the country, making it harder for enrollees to know if they are affected. Those given the wrong form will be able to access their corrected one sometime in early March, according to the report. 50,000 people in this group have already filed their taxes using the incorrect tax information. Officials are now in the process of trying to contact this group, and they will likely have to resubmit their tax returns. Enrollees who already filed will not find much help at HealthCare.gov for now, which only reads: “Additional information will be provided shortly.” Overall, nearly one million exchange enrollees could see delays in getting their income tax refunds, or find that their size of the refund has changed due to corrections in the tax form. Many of these people depend on this tax refund, and unanticipated problems could have significant adverse consequences.

Filing taxes is already a cumbersome and aggravating process. Obamacare has made it even more arduous as people have to attest to having health insurance coverage and how much they receive in exchange subsidies. Even worse, it nearly one in five HealthCare.gov customers was sent the wrong forms, and these people will have to delay filing their taxes, or even resubmit them. While this blunder will not cause the law to spiral out of control, it does reveal the potential for ongoing problems with its implementation. Following the news, HealthCare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan told reporters “We’re not doing any victory laps.” Other Obamacare supporters should take this lesson to heart.

American People Must Tell Politicians No More War

American foreign policy is a bipartisan failure. The U.S. must intervene everywhere all the time, irrespective of consequences?

No matter how disastrous the outcome, promiscuous interventionists insist that the idea was sound. Any problems obviously result from execution, a matter of doing too little:  too few troops engaged, too few foreigners killed, too few nations bombed, too few societies transformed, too few countries occupied, too few years involved, too few dollars spent.

As new conflicts rage across the Middle East, the interventionist caucus’ dismal record has become increasingly embarrassing. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a cheerleader for war in Libya, recently defended her actions after being chided on Twitter for being a war-monger. She had authored a celebratory Financial Times article entitled “Why Libya skeptics were proved badly wrong.” Alas, Slaughter’s Mediterranean adventure looks increasingly foolish.

Slightly more abashed is Samantha Power, one of the Obama administration’s chief Sirens of War. She recently pleaded with the public not to let constant failure get in the way of future wars:  “I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’ … one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons.” Just because the policy of constant war had been a constant bust, people shouldn’t be more skeptical about a military “solution” for future international problems.

President Barack Obama also appears to be a bit embarrassed by his behavior. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been as active militarily as his much-maligned predecessor.

Yet in 2013 he admitted that “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself when he added:  “I’ve spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power.”

The two parties usually attempt to one-up each other when it comes to reckless overseas intervention. Yet Uncle Sam has demonstrated that he possesses the reverse Midas Touch. Whatever he touches turns to mayhem.

In the Balkans the U.S. replaced ethnic cleansing with ethnic cleansing and set a precedent for Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine. In Afghanistan the U.S. rightly defenestrated the Taliban but then spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to remake that tribal nation.

Invading Iraq to destroy nonexistent WMDs cost the lives of 4500 Americans and 200,000 Iraqis, wrecked Iraqi society, loosed radical furies now embodied in the Islamic State, and empowered Iran. Bombing Libya prolonged a low-tech civil war killing thousands, released weapons throughout the region, triggered a prolonged power struggle, and offered another home for ISIL killers.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Not only has virtually every bombing, invasion, occupation, and other interference made problems worse. Almost every new intervention is an attempt to redress problems created by previous U.S. actions. And every new military step is likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to create even bigger new problems.”

Yet virtually never do foreign policy practitioners admit that things hadn’t gone well. Most of official Washington simply takes the Samantha Power position:  “What, me worry?”

There may have been a mistake or two, but one certainly wouldn’t want to “overdraw” a lesson from these multiple and constant failures. No responsible policymaker would want to admit that even one foreign problem was not America’s responsibility.

Washington’s elite might disagree about details, but believes with absolute certainty that Americans should do everything:  Fight every war, remake every society, enter every conflict, pay every debt, defeat every adversary, solve every problem, and ignore every criticism. Unfortunately, over the last two decades this approach has proved to be an abysmal disaster.

There’s an equally simple alternative. Indeed, the president came up with it:  “don’t do stupid” stuff.  Too bad he failed to practice his own professed policy.

Washington should stop doing stupid things. But only the American people can make that happen. They must start electing leaders committed to not doing “stupid” stuff.

Suing Governments for their Environmental Policy under International Law

Some folks over at Heritage have a new Issues Brief in which they argue for including an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the U.S.-EU trade deal being negotiated right now.  In a nutshell, ISDS lets foreign investors sue host country governments in an international tribunal when they feel certain of their rights have been infringed.

I’ve been critical of ISDS.  I do see the potential that such international rules have for protecting property rights, but I worry about other aspects of the rules.  One issue is that these rules protect the rights only of foreign investors.  Using Venezuela as an example, there’s an assumption that the courts there can’t help much with protecting rights. To some extent, ISDS is a response to that. So, if Exxon feels its operations there have been badly treated by the Venezuelan government, it can use the ISDS mechanism to have recourse to an international tribunal.  However, if a small Venezuelan dry cleaner is being subject to governmental abuse, it’s just out of luck.  To me, that seems problematic.  Focusing on the wealthy seems like a fundamentally unbalanced way to protect property rights.

When Wisconsin Officials Badger Their Political Opponents, It’s a Federal Case

SWAT teams—police units equipped with military-style weaponry and trained to deal with the most dangerous of criminals—were first created police realized that patrolmen equipped with revolvers and batons are generally able to keep the peace, they lack the resources and skills to deal with riots, urban terrorism, and other exotic crime. Since then, SWAT-style paramilitary units have been deployed to rescue hostages, end bank robberies, secure campuses after school shootings, and, in Wisconsin, to raid the houses and offices of people the state believed to be guilty of exercising their rights under the First Amendment.

That’s right: in the last few years, SWAT raids were part of a wide-ranging (politically motivated) investigation into whether certain unknown individuals—“John Does”—were violating campaign finance laws. Some of these John Does objected and challenged the validity of the subpoenas requiring them to turn over their records to the district attorney’s office.

The state trial court agreed and quashed the subpoena, finding that the state had no reason to believe that any violation of state law had occurred, or that the records taken would contain relevant evidence. Unsatisfied, the DA appealed the judge’s order. Rather than continuing this battle through the state courts, these John Does sued the state officials responsible for the investigation in federal court. They claimed that the investigation was a speech-chilling violation of their First Amendment rights and asked for a federal injunction preventing the state from pursuing the investigation.

The state argued that a federal law—the Anti-Injunction Act—prevents federal courts from ordering states to abandon in-progress criminal cases. Nevertheless, the district court issued an order stopping the SWAT-style fishing expedition, relying on a series of Supreme Court cases holding that the AIA doesn’t apply where the prosecution is known by the state to be baseless, is part of a campaign of harassment, or involves the enforcement of a blatantly unconstitutional law. The judge concluded that Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws, as well as the methods used to enforce them, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s order, however, concluding that since the state campaign-finance laws had not yet been declared unconstitutional—and their constitutionality was not directly before the district court—the AIA exceptions didn’t apply and the injunction was improper. In short, Wisconsin will be allowed to continue its investigation, the constitutionality of which is immune from legal challenge in federal court. In effect, the Seventh Circuit held that that under the AIA, the only time defendants can challenge the constitutionality of a state’s criminal laws is “when no state prosecution [is] pending.”

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal. We argue that regardless of whether Wisconsin’s election laws are unconstitutional, there was sufficient evidence suggesting that the sole purpose of the investigation was to harass the plaintiffs and discourage them (and others) from advocating a particular legislative agenda. Because the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the AIA allows federal judges to halt state enforcement of undeniably constitutional laws where there is evidence that a prosecution is being conducted for an improper purpose (like silencing political dissent), or in a manner that constitutes harassment, the district court had the power to issue an injunction regardless of whether or not Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws are constitutional.

The fact that the constitutionality of those laws is in doubt—it happens to be one of the most heavily contested questions currently before the courts—only makes the district court’s decision all the more proper and the Seventh Circuit’s all the more worrying. If allowed to stand, the long-term effect of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would be to give prosecutors carte blanche to do exactly what Wisconsin’s politically inspired prosecutors did: “investigate” perceived political threats for the very purpose of suppressing political speech. So long as arrests are never made and claims are never brought, the prosecutors are in the clear and no federal court can do anything about it. That can’t be the law.

The Supreme Court will decide this in the next couple of months whether to take the case of O’Keefe v. Chisholm.

Lynching, The Rule Of Law, and America’s Past

In connection with his new book The Libertarian Mind, my colleague David Boaz wrote a piece last week on how the struggle to abolish slavery was a defining episode for classical liberals and proto-libertarians of the past, indeed arguably their greatest accomplishment. In America, libertarian history and black history cannot be separated. 

We also know that after the end of slavery, the racial subjugation of American blacks did not end, but took new forms. As a new generation of historians has helped the nation remember, the “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws that spread across the South after Reconstruction were part of an interlocking array of practices that at its worst succeeded in recreating “slavery by another name.” Some of those laws were explicitly racial–and “segregation” is wholly inadequate as a description of the racial subordination they enforced–but others worked through theoretically race-neutral legal institutions, including convict-leasing combined with steep penalties for minor or pretended offenses, debt peonage for tenant farmers, and laws prohibiting “vagrancy” (i.e., unemployment) or walking away from a labor contract, among other offenses.  

The other main branch of legalized racial oppression after the Civil War was, if anything, even more difficult yet necessary to confront: sanctioned violence outside the machinery of the state, symbolized by the practice of lynching. Last week the Equal Justice Initiative released a report (summary here) that was written up in the New York Times and has drawn attention from commentators including conservative Rod Dreher.

The details–be warned that they are gruesome in the extreme–include burnings alive and public tortures and mutilations carried out before crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of persons. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”

Diet Change and Climate Change

A draft set of new dietary guidelines released yesterday by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was backed by a 571-page scientific report from the 2015 Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee (DGAC) that was assembled by the Obama administration.

The Washington Post reports that, for the first time ever, the Dietary Guidelines took into consideration the environmental impacts of food production in recommending that Americans decrease their consumption of red meat and increase their intake of plant-based food.

This is from the DGAC’s Executive Summary (emphasis added):

The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.

Among the environmental considerations is greenhouse gas emissions, which are significant for one reason only: climate change (despite the DGAC report explicitly stating it did not take into account climate change).

This is another example of the breadth of Obama’s Climate Action Plan—although one not announced as such … yet.

In anticipation, I wanted to see just what kind of a climate change impact these dietary guidelines could potentially avert.

My calculations are admittedly rough, but you’ll see once you get to the end, that it hardly makes much of difference even if I am off my an order of magnitude.

Evidenced-based Sea Level Rise Projections Remain Low

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

When it comes right down to it, the biggest potential threat from a warming climate is a large and rapid sea level rise. Everything else that a changing climate may bring we’ve seen before (or at least the likes of it), recovered from, and are better off for it (i.e., gained experience, learned lessons, developed new technologies, etc.). In fact, the more often extreme weather occurs, the more adaptive is our response (see for example, decreasing mortality in heat waves). So in that sense, climate change may hasten our adaptive response and reduce our overall vulnerability to it.

A large and rapid sea level rise is a bit of a different story—although perhaps not entirely so.

While we do have a large amount of infrastructure (e.g., big cities) in low-lying coastal regions, it is completely wrong to show them underwater in the future—a typical device used by climate activists. What will happen is that we will act to protect the most valued portions of that infrastructure, as shown in a recent report from leading experts (including from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) on sea level rise and response.

But, while targeted action will save our big cities, there is still a lot of real estate that will be lost if sea level rises a large amount in a short amount of time (say, by more than a meter [a little more than 3 feet] by the end of the 21st century).

We therefore keep a vigilant eye on sea level rise research. And what we’ve concluded is that sea level rise by the year 2100 is very likely to be quite modest, say about 15 inches—an amount that should allay concerns of a catastrophe. We’ve detailed literature in support of our conclusions here, there, and elsewhere.

This week, a new paper has come to our attention that further supports our synthesis.