Don't blame the fund managers, blame the tax code.
This week, I had a piece in the magazine arguing that retirement is trouble. That's a golden oldie for those of you who've been reading a while; my favorite evergreen topic is haranguing my readers to save 15-20% of their income, or fer goshsakes at least 10%, towards retirement. (I mean it guys. You need to save more.)
But this piece had an interesting peg: Republic Services, Inc. is in the middle of an epic battle with the Teamsters International over the pension plans that cover their workers. Up until recently, Republic teamsters have been covered by the rather notorious Central States pension fund, whose own director told Congress it would be broke in a decade or so unless something drastic was done. Republic wanted to terminate its obligations and put workers in a 401(k) (or at least a more solvent Teamster pension plan). The International Brotherhood of Teamsters was not a fan of this plan.
Central States is in particularly bad shape, but it's far from alone. A whole lot of the big union pension plans are in trouble. This is usually cited as an example of The Trouble With Unions, or alternatively, The Scandalous Underregulation of the Private Sector. As I dug into the details though, I found out something that surprised me: this wasn't just a story about union mismanagement. And it wasn't a story about deregulation, either. Oh, to be sure, the funds could have managed things better (more about that in a little while). But the reason that they're in such deep trouble now is neither bad management, nor inadequate regulation. In fact, the opposite is true: managers wanted to do a better job, and the government actively stopped them. Meet the true culprit behind the crisis in union pension plans: the friendly folks at the IRS.
Back in the day, long before the stock market boom began, the IRS decided that pension funds were a problem, taxwise. As I understand it, this problem was mostly in small professional practices like doctors and lawyers offices. The doctors and lawyers would employ one or two other people, most of them transient single women who could be expected to leave to get married long before their pension vested. So you'd set up a "pension plan" in which, realistically, you were going to be the beneficiary. Then you'd stuff it full of money, far more than you needed to pay out your pension. It was a pretty nice tax shelter.
Everyone favors greater transparency in markets. But surprisingly, sometimes it can backfire.
"Transparency" is one of those policy prescriptions that pretty much everyone can agree with, like "Be nice to people" and "Never run with scissors". Even libertarians generally smile when the government steps in to force businesses to provide more information, though to be sure, when the business is a fast food restaurant, and the information is how much fat we'll pack on if we eat the 10-piece McNuggets we're craving, that smile may take on a certain strained, false quality.
Still, transparency! As all-around marvelous as motherhood and apple pie; pretty much everyone is theoretically in favor. But at least in one market, Mark Kleiman reports, transparency may have had the unexpected result of killing a product that everyone liked:
It appears that one local grower developed a strain sold under the “Purple Urkle” label. It was widely held, by producers and consumers alike, to be truly righteous weed, and it flew off the shelves.
Then the fashion for chemical testing came in. Purple Urkle tested at a mere 7% THC – perhaps twice the THC content of what was called “marijuana” when I was in college, but well below the 12-18% that current products claim (more accurately in some cases than in others). Result: even the consumers who had already experienced and enjoyed Purple Urkle, and had been asking for it by name, wouldn’t touch it. They were so used to the idea that quality is defined by THC content that they didn’t want to smoke what they now “knew” to be weak weed. So the brand more or less died.
If you can't win the political battle, change the facts on the ground
A colleague points out something interesting about Mark Sanford's comeback victory in South Carolina's first district: it's part of a broader trend towards uncompetitive congressional districts. Some pundits have despaired at the thought that a guy who left the governor's office (and his wife) to sneak off to meet a girlfriend in a foreign country could nonetheless be returned to elected office--Ross Douthat of the New York Times tweeted "I'm a John Profumo guy living in a Mark Sanford world." But for voters, in the end the only thing that mattered in yesterday's special elections was the (R) after Sanford's name.
And that's not limited to South Carolina. Michael Barone recently noted that . Political preferences are hardening; folks in a given district are consistently voting the party, not the candidate. This suggests that for the foreseeable future, all the political action will lie in the presidency, and the Senate. The next big movement in the House will probably be the 2020 census.
But the implications don't stop there. If the Census is the key to political control, then you can expect parties to put more energy into gaming the census. Arguably, you're already seeing this: Republicans are now making their second attempt to defund the American Community Survey, which uses sampling to generate data between censuses. The American Community Survey is not used for districting, but it is used for all manner of other policy purposes.
As the political fault lines harden in Congress, the battlegrounds are moving back to more hidden levers of policymaking. There are the courts, of course: we're now in the third decade of a mostly undeclared war to gain control of the Supreme Court and do some unelected legislating. Data gathering and research funding are coming under fierce scrutiny. And on the national security front, secrecy and executive orders seem to be the order of the day for whoever is in the White House.
The good news is that health care costs aren't rocketing away like they used to. The bad news is that drug discovery has slowed down too.
While working on some of my recent posts about the Oregon study, I came across this report from the CDC on changing causes of death over time. If you spend any time thinking about the history of health innovation in America, it's pretty fascinating.
The first thing you notice is that how we die hasn't changed all that much since the Great Depression: the leading causes of death today are cancer and heart disease, just as they were in 1935. But in other ways, everything has changed.
For decades, pneumonia was known to doctors as the "old man's friend" because it was viewed as a better way to die than cancer or heart disease, and among the elderly, it had a mortality rate approaching 100%. Babies, too, were apt to succumb. Thanks to antibiotics, this category has largely been vanquished. Kidney disease, formerly a major cause of death, has basically dropped out of the chart thanks to the invention of dialysis. Stroke fatalities have notably decreased, because we've gotten pretty good at controlling hypertension. Accident deaths are down too, for which you can thank both safer jobs and better trauma care. Cancer and heart attacks are expanding only because we've all got to die of something eventually; if you look at the annual mortality statistics, you'll see we're better at treating those, too.
More on that bombshell study out of Oregon
It's time for another post on last week's study out of Oregon, which showed--much to the surprise of practically everybody--that putting people into Medicaid didn't seem to significantly improve their physical health.
I know it's a lovely spring day and you're looking longingly at the happy hour specials, or that riding lawnmower you'd like to test drive one more time. But stay with me, because this debate is literally the most important thing to happen to health care policy since . . . well, for a long time, anyway. If the Oregon results hold, they will radically change the way that we think about health care policy: what it's for, what it can do, and how it should be constructed.
And contrary to what you might have heard, this is not some weird, outlying result that doesn't mean anything. There are other studies which have found surprisingly small effects of giving people insurance. I commend to you Levy and Meltzer's very thorough literature review from 2008, in which they point out just how mixed the data are:
How does health insurance affect health? After reviewing the evidence on this question, we reach three conclusions. First, many of the studies claiming to show a causal effect of health insurance on health do not do so convincingly because the observed correlation between insurance and good health may be driven by other, unobservable fac- tors. Second, convincing evidence demonstrates that health insur- ance can improve health measures of some population subgroups, some of which, although not all, are the same subgroups that would be the likely targets of coverage expansion policies. Third, for pol- icy purposes we need to know whether the results of these studies generalize. Solid answers to the multitude of important questions about how specific health insurance policy options may affect health seem likely to be forthcoming only with investment of substantial resources in social experiments.
"Count all the Votes" became the rallying cry after the courts told Democrats they couldn't just count some of the votes
Last week I wrote that "count all the votes" emerged comparatively late in the game of the Bush v. Gore saga. A number of people have pushed back, here and elsewhere, have pushed back. Gore, they say, offered to do a hand recount of all 67 Florida counties on November 15th; if Bush would support it, and withdraw his lawsuits, Gore said he would withdraw his lawsuits too. Bush turned him down. This is supposed to prove that Democrats always had a committment to counting all the votes.
Well, not so fast. For starters, when Bush turned him down, Gore didn't go and start asking for recounts in all 67 Florida counties. His committment to "counting all the votes" was conditional on Bush withdrawing all of his lawsuits. It was a second-best alternative to just counting some of the votes, one which he offered when it looked like he might be losing. When it was turned down, he went on with his partial recount strategy.
And because of this, the voices raised in favor of counting all the votes were somewhat muted. A Nexis search for the phrase "Count all the votes" in major newspapers turns up just 26 uses in the week after the Florida election--before Gore had made his offer. In the first 17 days of the recount, it occurs just 57 times. Then, on November 24th, the Supreme Court accepted cert for the Florida recount, with a hearing to be held on December 1st.
Observers knew that this meant the Florida Supreme Court ruling allowing partial recounts was likely going to be overturned (if they weren't likely to overturn, they would have just dodged the case on a technicality). Suddenly, folks get very interested in counting all the votes: there are almost 100 mentions between November 24th and November 30th, with most of those seeming to come in the few days before the hearing. Then things quite down for the three days until the court decides: just 25 mentions.
Shifting business models mean that sales tax is no longer a competitive advantage
It looks like the Marketplace Fairness Act--the official name for a proposal to allow states to collect sales tax on internet sales made to their residents--will pass the Senate sometime today. It will have a tougher time in the House, where Republicans still aren't keen on supporting anything that smacks of higher taxes. Still, it's remarkable, at least because it shows that under the right circumstances, you can get at least some members of the GOP to support a tax increase.
I wrote about this plan a couple of weeks ago, noting that the biggest issue with the bill is the disproportionate burden it will put on small businesses. Amazon can afford to pay a small army to hassle with states who claim that Amazon isn't paying enough tax. Mom's Cupcake Bakery and Cable Store cannot.
The really interesting story of this whole case is Amazon's shift from a staunch foe of taxing the internet, to one of its biggest boosters. A few years back, Amazon was waging a scorched-earth campaign against states that attempted to collect sales taxes from internet businesses. For example, when various states passed laws claiming that affiliate links represented a physical nexus in those states that would allow them to collect taxes, Amazon said they were closing down associates who were residents of those states.
Both the states and Amazon clearly believed that freedom from sales tax constituted a major competitive advantage for Amazon. Yet a few years later, they're all sunshine and smiles when it comes to taxing the internet. In fact, they're lobbying for it. Why the shift?
Is it time to drop your health insurance?
On Wednesday, a team of researchers released a new study on Oregon's Medicaid expansion, showing that people who gained access to treatment had no statistically significant improvement on physical health measures like blood pressure or cholesterol. I wrote: "Given this result, what is the likelihood that Obamacare will have a positive impact on the average health of Americans? Every one of us, for or against, should be revising that probability downwards. I'm not saying that you have to revise it to zero; I certainly haven't. But however high it was yesterday, it should be somewhat lower today."
But how should we update our beliefs? Does this mean there's a chance that health care doesn't work?
That's one possible interpretation. Let's look at the strongest case. Assume for a moment that if we could somehow study the entire population of the United States, we'd find that gaining access to health insurance doesn't improve blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol control. What would that tell us? That health care doesn't work?
That's not actually as crazy as it sounds. Lots of treatments are bad for you, and gaining access to the health system may just give you opportunities to get sicker. Say you're an 88 year old with bad hips. Now, maybe sitting still and not exercising is making you sick. But going to get a hip replacement gives you all sorts of ways to die: blood clot, hospital acquired infection, adverse reaction to anaesthesia. If it's not covered by insurance, maybe you'll stay home, take aspirin, and live longer.
The jobs report isn't bad. But it's not great, either.
This morning's job report was in some ways a relief, and in some ways a disappointment. The retail sector is weak right now, and retail can be a leading indicator of economic weakness (and also, a source of employment). So I now have this sort of reflexive flinch when the jobs report comes out, as I half-expect a big blow to fall.
That didn't happen this month, thankfully. The jobs report was fine. Payroll employment increased by 165,000--more than enough to soak up population growth. Long term unemployment dropped by a quarter of a million people. Retail employment was actually up.
But if it wasn't too worrying, it also wasn't particularly cheering. This is a middling jobs report for the middle of the business cycle. But five years after the financial crisis, we still haven't had a month of really good job growth--the kind that America needs to put some of those long-term unemployed folks back to work. The employment-to-population seems stuck at 58.6%. That's the lowest it's been since the early eighties, when fewer women worked.
Take a look at the employment-to-population ratio since 1990.
One of the most important health insurance studies ever done shows surprisingly little effect
Bombshell news out of Oregon today: a large-scale randomized controlled trial (RCT) of what happens to people when they gain Medicaid eligibility shows no impact on objective measures of health. Utilization went up, out-of-pocket expenditure went down, and the freqency of depression diagnoses was lower. But on the three important health measures they checked that we can measure objectively--glycated hemoglobin, a measure of blood sugar levels; blood pressure; and cholesterol levels--there was no significant improvement.
I know: sounds boring. Glycated hemoglobin! I might as well be one of the adults on Charlie Brown going wawawawawawa . . . and you fell asleep, didn't you?
But this is huge news if you care about health care policy--and given the huge national experiment we're about to embark on, you'd better. Bear with me.
Some of the news reports I've seen so far are somewhat underselling just how major these results are.
Neat stories are too good to be true. True stories are too boring to sell.
Almost two years ago, the field of social psychology was rocked by some astounding news: Diederik Stapel, one of its stars, had been faking his research. I don't mean that he'd been subtly altering figures to give better results, or maybe running through a series of increasingly implausible modeling assumptions until they delivered the results he'd expected. I mean he'd apparently given up doing experiments entirely. Instead he imagined experiments, imagined which results would look good, and then sat down at a computer and entered those numbers into a spreadsheet.
The New York Times Magazine has an incredible article this week describing what Stapel did, and how he did it. What's less clear is why he did it, or how he was able to get away with faking results for seven long years. To his credit, Stapel, unlike most such fraudsters, does seem to grasp that what he did was wrong, and that he alone was responsible for his misbehavior. It was a refreshing change from the complaints about witch hunts, bad childhoods, or the weakness of one's "standard operating procedures" that have accompanied most such revelations. When Stapel's parents try to excuse him by criticizing the system, he corrects them:
The unspooling of Stapel’s career has given him what he managed to avoid for much of his life: the experience of failure. On our visit to Stapel’s parents, I watched his discomfort as Rob and Dirkje tried to defend him. “I blame the system,” his father said, steadfast. His argument was that Stapel’s university managers and journal editors should have been watching him more closely.
Stapel shook his head. “Accept that this happened,” he said. He seemed to be talking as much to himself as to his parents. “You cannot say it is because of the system. It is what it is, and you need to accept it.” When Rob and Dirkje kept up their defense, he gave them a weak smile. “You are trying to make the pain go away by saying this is not part of me,” he said. “But what we need to learn is that this happened. I did it. There were many circumstantial things, but I did it.”;
Questions linger in the wake of the Bangladeshi disaster
Matt Yglesias took a lot of flak last week for responding to an Erik Loomis post about the tragic collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory by saying:
It's very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 people just died in a building collapse.* This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.
I think that's wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it's entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that's primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it's good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate (I'll gesture at arguments offered in Robert Frank's The Darwin Economy and Tom Slee's No One Makes You Shop At Walmart if you're interested), but that still leaves us with the question of "which collective" should make the collective choice.
Art may be valuable. But it's not deductible unless it turns a profit.
Maria at Crooked Timber wonders why the Minnesota Department of Taxation is hassling artists:
One of the days, I’ll get around to reading the copy of Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy; The Moral Limits of Markets’. It’s even made the exquisitely painful cut of being one of only two dozen books brought on our three-month sojourn on the south coast of England. When I do read Sandel, I hope to acquire a greater appreciation for exactly how market thinking has permeated and corrupted so many aspects of human life.
One surprising place a weirdly attenuated and manically zealous form of market thinking has popped up is in the Minnesota tax office. (via BoingBoing) They’re running a quite unhinged vendetta against Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus DeMars, a married couple who make music, art, poetry and teach English. The taxman running their audit says Reini-Grandell and DeMars’ creative activities don’t make enough money, and haven’t for years, thus proving the artists are mere hobbyists who shouldn’t get a tax break. Either they should turn a consistent profit by now, or have given up already and gone back to being good little consumers.
Fascinated, I clicked through the link she provides, and I think I can tell her: the couple in question are not actually making any money.
They'd have had to take it eventually
Political Scientist Chris Lawrence makes an astute point in the comments of a Doug Mataconis post: the way things were heating up in Florida, the case would have ended up before the United States Supreme Court, one way or another.
One other thing to bear in mind: as of the date of the court’s decision, the Florida state legislature was in the process of moving a bill to award all of the state’s electors to Bush (which under the 12th Amendment was its right; Scalia is often mocked on the left for saying in Bush v. Gore there is no right for the people to elect the president, but it’s right there in the text of the Constitution). Inevitably that would have been challenged in court. And inevitably that case would have ended up on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket, because I can’t imagine the equally-politicized Florida Supremes ruling for the legislature’s position. So denying cert here just would have delayed matters further.
The original sin, in my view, was Gore's attempt to recount just the votes in a few heavily Democratic counties. I'm not saying that Bush would have done any different, had the positions been reversed. But once that had happened--and Democrats on local election boards and the Florida Supreme Court had decided to go along--there was no longer even a pretense that this was about anything other than naked post-facto power grabs, using whatever political levers your party controlled. "Count all the votes", which most progressives now remember as the rallying cry, actually came very late in the process, and only after the Supreme Court of the United States told the Florida Supreme Court that no, it couldn't just let Al Gore add in some new votes from Democratic Counties his team had personally selected.
By the time Bush v. Gore petitioned for cert, both sides were more or less nakedly maneuvering to declare their candidate the winner. The Florida Supreme Court's November 21st decision was outrageous and completely unjustifiable. So was Katherine Harris's clear determination to stop any recount that might help Gore. And while the Florida legislature was arguably within its constitutional rights to intervene to declare Bush the winner, this contravened more than a century of custom . . . and the behavior of the state Republican Party in the weeks prior made this seem less like a bid for fairness and closure than a bid to make their guy president. The Florida Supreme Court would undoubtedly have ruled against the legislature, but of course, their prior behavior made it impossible to claim that they were just trying to insure a fair and democratic process.
Sandra Day O'Connor says that maybe the Supremes should have sat that one out. What if they had?
Teeth are grinding in front of computers from Bangor to Baltimore, San Diego to San Jose. In a quiet interview with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, Sandra Day O'Connor mused of Bush v. Gore, "Maybe the court should have said, 'We're not going to take it, goodbye.'"
How much would have changed if they had just said "Thanks, but no thanks?"
I love me some counterfactuals, and there's nothing more fun than ripping open ten year old wounds, so I thought I'd take a look at the likely outcomes if the Supreme Court had just bowed out of the whole mess in Florida.
It turns out that this is not a simple question. Much depends on when they'd bowed out, and what decisions were made by various parties in Florida.
Jim DeMint’s new hard-right outfit is threatening any Republican considering a ‘yes.’ By Eleanor Clift.
Did Obama lock down the independent vote with his move to reform immigration law? Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky and David Frum debate the liberal and conservative perspective on the latest immigration reform.