Obamacare's Cost Control: Too Little. Hearing About It: Too Late
Sarah Kliff has a nice little piece on health care advocates getting together to figure out how to control costs. "Obamacare Expanded Health Access" read the title. "Now supporters want another bill to tackle costs."
[T]he Partnership wants to start putting political muscle behind the ideas that already exist — and, after it does that, pass legislation that would control health-care costs in a way the Affordable Care Act doesn’t.
“One of the things we’ve all learned from decades of painful experience with health-care reform is that these are very powerful interests,” Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack says. “If they’re not bought in, we’re not going to achieve significant change.
“What we think we’re doing that’s unique is we’re going to reach out to those key parties and key sectors. If we’re successful, we’ll lay the basis for a comprehensive, thoughtful approach to dealing with costs and quality.”
It's fun to blame Ron Johnson, but it's doubtful that anyone else could have saved the ailing retailer.
This week, JC Penney's board fired the firm's CEO: Ron Johnson, the former retail genius who bought you the Apple Store. The post-mortems have been pretty brutal. Johnson seemed to think that what worked for Apple would work for JC Penney: he canceled sales and tried to lure buyers instead with specialized in-store boutiques and similar buzzy fare.
This was pretty much entirely disastrous. "Always low prices" works for Wal-Mart because it is, far and away, the low cost supplier of pretty much everything it sells, and for Apple because it sells a product that can't be bought at a discount anywhere. It didn't work for JC Penney, which sells middling quality goods to a cost-conscious demographic which has been especially squeezed over the last five years. As Virginia Postrel points out, this got rid of the old reason that people used to stop into Penneys, but didn't give them enough of a new one to get them through the doors.
This certainly demonstrates that you should never put too much stock in genius (your own, or anyone else's). Some of what looks like superlative performance may just be the luck of the draw. Ron Johnson did a very good job launching Apple's retail stores. But it doesn't follow that he can therefore make anything work, even an ailing department store brand whose consumers are cutting back sharply on their spending.
But by the same token, we shouldn't give in to the temptation to think that Ron Johnson is some sort of idiot who would have been able to save Penneys if he wasn't so stupid. Johnson's bold moves didn't work, to be sure . . . but it's not clear what would have. Large retail stores in malls are not a very good business to be in. And if you have to be in that business, because you happened to get into the business 80 years ago when it was a license to print money, JC Penneys market segment is about the last one you'd pick. It's vulnerable on about every front.
Currency is liquid. Bitcoins aren't.
When people dismiss Bitcoins because they can’t think of how they’d use it, they’re missing the fact that Bitcoin is a platform, not a product in its own right. When ordinary users started buying computers, it wasn’t because they thought it would be cool to own a computer. They did it because they wanted to do spreadsheets or word processing or email. Similarly, ordinary users aren’t going to start using Bitcoins just because it’s a cool technology. If normal users start using Bitcoin, it will be because they’re interested in gambling, or cheap international money transfers, or some other applications that hasn’t been invented yet. And Bitcoin’s intermediary-free architecture means that many more people can try their hand at building the platform’s killer app.
I haven't written about bitcoin before, but here's my stab at why it's fair to say that bitcoins are frothy: eventually, the novelty will wear off, the state will get involved, and the costs will be found to outweigh the advantages.
The problem isn't that I can't imagine how I'd used bitcoins. I can imagine exactly how I'd use them: to evade government surveillance of my financial transactions. This potential use seems to have tickled the imaginations of many, many bitcoin fanciers. The problem is, the government also has an imagination.
It barely raises any money. It won't discourage people from buying corporate jets. So why does the president spend so much time talking about it?
The administration is due to release its budget later today, at which point I'll dive in emerge sometime later with a trenchant analysis clutched in my teeth as I swim madly for the shore.
Meanwhile, a note on something we know will be in the budget: deficit reduction via elimination of the perfidious "tax breaks for corporate jets". The president seems to have been obsessed with corporate jets at least since The Audacity of Hope, and continues to argue strongly against them at every opportunity; they were a cornerstone of his stump speeches. And have continued to be even after the election ended. In February, for example, he told a Kansas television station that "they don't need an extra tax break, especially at a time when we're trying to reduce the deficit. Something's gotta give."
This is a bit weird given that President Obama rides on what is essentially the nicest corporate jet in the world. To be fair, the President is quite right that companies do not need a tax break to buy corporate jets. But since they don't really get a tax break for buying corporate jets, we probably don't need to spend this much valuable presidential time worrying about this non-problem.
Should Google and Facebook employees pay taxes on all that free food?
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the IRS is eyeing one of the many fabulous perks of working for a high-tech company: free food. If the Journal is right, Googlers and Facebookers could soon be paying taxes on their consumption of all those luscious free meals.
Should the IRS really treat those meals as compensation? My colleague Daniel Gross doesn't think so. On the one hand, those meals really are pretty great; I've eaten in the Google cafeteria in D.C., and it rivals the offerings of the more expensive local eateries. On the other hand, the companies argue that this is essentially a part of creating their unique corporate culture. Keeping the staff in for lunch boosts productivity (no time wasted walking or driving to a restaurant), and perhaps more importantly, it keeps your employees eating together, bouncing ideas off each other and fostering creativity.
The one argument that they can't make is that the free food helps them attract and retain top-notch workers. The IRS has a term for tools that help you attract and retain workers: they call them "compensation." And they want someone—either you, or your employer—to pay taxes on any such attractive amenities.
The core problem is that the IRS cannot look into the hearts of companies and see which of them really needs to provide free lunch to their employees in order to have a healthy, vibrant company, and which of them is doing this in order to provide a tax-free boon to their workers. There is a reason that the tax code was amended to make it harder for employers to expense employee meals: prior to the 1986 tax code reform, when all meals were deductible to the employer, but not taxable to the employee, corporate dining rooms and expense accounts were in fact frequently used as a form of supplementary tax-free compensation. Since the IRS can't tell which companies are mostly interested in the productivity benefits, and which are mostly interested in giving their employees a little something extra on the side, they have to rely on some very crude rules, like "Is it physically feasible for you to leave the premises in order to eat?"
Thatcher's radical transformation was necessary. But its work remains incomplete.
To understand the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, you need to understand Britain's "Winter of Discontent," in which striking public-sector workers nearly paralyzed the nation. Actually, you have to go back a bit further, to the inflations of the 1970s. Americans remember the "stagflation" of the 1970s as bad, but in Britain it was even worse—the inflation rate peaked in 1975 at over 25 percent.
Governments on both sides of the pond decided that the solution to inflation was to simply declare, by fiat, that prices would not rise so much. In America we got Nixon's wage and price controls. In Britain, they got the government's 1978 vow to hold public-sector wage increases to 5 percent—at a time when inflation was running to double digits.
The public-sector workers, as you might imagine, did not like that. And in Britain, the public-sector workers had immense power. Trash piled up in the streets. The truck drivers who ferried goods all over Britain went on strike—and the ones who didn't, like oil tanker drivers, began feeding their destinations to "flying pickets"—mobile groups of strikers who would go from location to location, blockading them so that workers couldn't get in and goods couldn't get out. The BBC called them the "shock troops of industrial action" and that's an accurate picture; effectively mobilized, flying pickets can grind the wheels of industry to a halt. Which is what they did in the winter of 1978-79.
In Liverpool, the gravediggers went out, leaving bodies unburied for weeks. By the end of January, half the hospitals in Britain were taking only emergency cases. Full of righteous fury, the unions flexed every muscle, demonstrating all the tremendous power that they had amassed by law and custom in the years since the Second World War. Unfortunately, they were pummeling the Labour Party, which had given them most of those powers. And the public, which was also suffering through high inflation and anemic GDP growth, had had enough. They elected Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative grocer's daughter without roots in the working-class power structure of the labor movement, or the elite power structure of Britain's famously rigid class system. She systematically went about dismantling the two main sources that gave labor the power to essentially shut down the United Kingdom: lenient strike laws and state ownership of key industrial sectors. Arguably, by doing so she also ultimately helped undermine the class system, unleashing a somewhat more meritocratic entrepreneurial elite.
I've long been skeptical of the idea that hamburgers = death. But new data are slowly changing my mind.
The correlations between eating red meat and getting heart disease are suggestive. But the mechanism has always been a bit dim. Most of the research on saturated fat that was religiously followed in the 1990s has turned out to be less robust than we originally thought. That's led "paleo" diet followers and Atkins types to focus on eating almost nothing but meat. But the correlation still seems to be there.
I've long suspected that it was a case of selection bias. The people most likely to follow any diet fad are upper-middle-class people who are likely to live longer than everyone else anyway. So if you tell them to get on a low-fat diet, ten years later, your long-term study of dietary patterns and mortality will show that lo and behold, low-fat diets improve mortality. If they all switch to eating red meat, then ten years later, red meat will look like some life-lengthening elixir. But over the last 20 years, the elites have been switching away from red meat, so red meat is apt to look deadly.
The people most likely to follow any diet fad are upper-middle-class people who are likely to live longer than everyone else anyway... If they all switch to eating red meat, then ten years later, red meat will look like some life-lengthening elixir. (Juanmonino/Getty)
Well, today I got a big challenge to that theory. Scientists have isolated what looks like a plausible mechanism by which red meat damages your heart: the gut bacteria of frequent meat eaters process carnitine, a chemical found in red meat, into something called TMAO. And TMAO is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.
Big numbers, but underneath them, a lot of questions
The White House budget has leaked to Jackie Calmes of the New York Times and various other outlets. Here are the details, as far as I can make out:
1. It will incorporate the deal that Obama offered John Boehner during the fiscal cliff negotiations. $600 billion in new revenue, mostly from capping deductions for rich people at 28%. $400 billion out of health care spending, mostly from provider payment cuts.
2. The big news is that administration continues embracing "chained CPI", which would lower the inflation rate that is used to calculate cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security benefits. This has been very unpopular with the party's left wing
3. The president is continuing to emphasize pre-K education, which looks to be the signature progressive project of his second term. He wants more money for states to fund pre-K, paid for by higher taxes on tobacco.
Never fear, Fitzgerald is here!
I'll be out of pocket for most of the rest of the day. So console yourself over the lackluster jobs report with another hilarious puppy video:
Five years in to the Great Recession, the economy still isn't putting people back to work
Payroll employment rose by 88,000 jobs in March. The best you can say about this is at least it's not falling. The conventional wisdom is that the economy needs to add around 125,000 jobs just to keep even with population growth, so we're about a third short. Headline unemployment stood unchanged at 7.6%, but that's because nearly half a million people left the labor force in March, and therefore were not counted as unemployed. As my former colleague Dan Indiviglio noted on Twitter, a half a million people leaving the labor force in the spring doesn't sound like retirement; it sounds like discouragement. People are finding it too hard to secure a job, so they're giving up.
The biggest weakness in the private sector was retail, which lost 24,000 jobs. This comes on top of reports that US retail sales were weak in March--and Walmart's February freakout over disappearing customers. Since retail can be the canary in the coal mine for the broader economy, there's real reason to be anxious.
That said, it's just one month. It's been a cold spring, which could be hurting retail sales, especially at home and garden centers, which lost a bunch of jobs. So don't start stocking up on canned goods and ammo just yet. But keep a close eye on the April figures.
Buying high. Selling low. Stop trying to beat the market and start focusing on saving enough that you don't have to.
Brett Arends has a spot-on column about the Mom and Pop investor, and how they keep screwing up their investments:
The problem with Villa and White isn’t that they are unusual but that they are absolutely the typical American investor. Both of them are doctors, meaning they are presumably intelligent and educated. And yet they insist on investing like absolute fools.
First, their minds have been playing tricks on them all along. The crash of 2008 did not wipe out half their savings, unless they invested all their money right at the peak and sold right at the bottom. The reality is that it wiped out a lot of illusory gains and replaced them with a lot of illusory losses. Stock prices were wrong in 2007 because they were too high, and they were wrong in late 2008 and early 2009 because they were too low.
Second, as they now know, they sold out somewhere near the lows. They were not alone. According to the Investment Company Institute, the trade body of the mutual fund industry, U.S. investors flooded the market with stocks in the fall of 2008 and the winter of 2009. From September, 2008 through March, 2009, ordinary U.S. investors dumped $114 billion worth of stock funds. They sold at absolutely the worst time.
Japan's central banker is pushing for higher inflation. How much good will it do?
Japan has announced a bold new plan to halt deflation. The idea is to effectively double the amount of money in circulation, getting the country back to 2% inflation as soon as possible.
I join most economists in thinking that deflation is bad, and it will be good if Japan can stop it. Deflation causes money hoarding--if that dollar you have now will be worth more later, it only makes sense to spend it later. Deflation also means that the economy adjusts to real shocks in the most disruptive way possible.
Say a company's customer base is shrinking, or getting more price conscious. They need to shrink their real wage bill by 3%. If inflation is running at 2% a year, they can just freeze wages and hold on for a little while. But if inflation is negative--i.e., if they have deflation--then they have to do something more drastic. Either they have to give employees a pay cut, which is really hard to do, or they have to fire people.
So too with debt. Deflation is good for creditors. But it's terrible for debtors. Say that business is slow and your mortgage is really starting to pinch. If inflation is 2-3%, you just need to hold on a bit; every year, the real value of your mortgage will shrink, making it easier to pay. If inflation is negative, you'll probably have to lower your prices. But the value of your mortgage doesn't adjust in the same way, so every year, it gets harder and harder to pay. Eventually, you may default. Both you and the creditor would have been better off with moderate inflation than an outright breach.
The news business is about to go to paywalls. Will consultants help them collude on the price?
The era of free news is fast drawing to an end. Newspapers have conceded that digital ad revenues are never going to replace what they lost in print, and so they're going to try to get the money out of readers instead. Most of the major British and American newspapers are either throwing up paywalls, or considering it. I imagine that magazines will not be all that far behind. Information may want to be free, but its creators need to get a paycheck.
Felix Salmon notes that consultancies will end up driving how these paywalls are priced: by working for multiple competitors, they can amass information on what works, and what doesn't--and then sell that information. The market will probably converge on one, or a couple of firms, the better to share that information. James Joyner wonders how this can be legal:
But my immediate reaction was: Why is this legal?
One longstanding critique of newspaper paywalls has been that few of us are going to fork over money for ordinary news—as opposed to niche information valuable to our business—when there are so many quality sources outside of paywalls. So, the only way for, say, the New York Times to successfully implement a paywall was for all its peer competitors to also go behind a paywall at the same time. But, given that paywalls had a poor track record of success, that erecting them is somewhat expensive, and that putting them up cut down on pageviews and thus advertising revenue, a Catch-22 existed.
That fish you're eating may not be what you think it is
Smithsonian Magazine reports that mislabeling fish is rampant, particularly in sushi restaurants. Most of that white tuna you're eating is something else. So is the red snapper. And to varying degrees, much of the rest of the fish you're eating is probably some other fish entirely.
The study compiled data from more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retailers in 21 states between 2010 to 2012. DNA testing showed that 33 percent of those samples were mislabeled or posing as fish that they were not. Samples claimed to be tuna and snapper had the highest fail rates, at 59 percent and 87 percent, respectively. Only seven of 120 samples of “red snapper” purchased nationwide actually proved to be red snapper. The rest belonged to any of six different misrepresented species.
Two immediate thoughts on this. The first is that this is the sort of thing that even libertarians think that the government is supposed to prevent. Someone in that food supply chain knows that the fish they're selling as tuna is in fact something else entirely. How has this deception become so pervasive?
The second--which is possibly an explanation for the first--is that it's hard to know how much this matters. Before the FDA started cracking down, grocers might stretch your coffee with other kinds of beans, your flour with sawdust. This was not only deceptive, but also dangerous; for example, eating raw, or briefly boiled, beans is not very good for your digestion.
Speaking out for gun control, she reveals that she doesn't know magazines can be reloaded
A couple of days ago, I noted that Kathleen Sebelius doesn't seem to know how insurance works. Now Colorado's senior Democratic representative, who wants to ban extended magazines, appears to reveal that she doesn't know how the magazines that she wants to ban actually work:
Asked how a ban on magazines holding more than 15 rounds would be effective in reducing gun violence, DeGette said:
“I will tell you these are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those now they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available.”
What she didn’t appear to understand is that a magazine can be reloaded with more bullets. According to the Shooter’s Log, only early on were magazines for AR-15s designed to be disposable, but the military changed that and now magazines are used several times. In handguns, a magazine is designed to be reused hundreds of times.
Writer George Packer mostly succeeds in describing the dissolution of our civic culture, says Michael Tomasky.
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.