Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Like your health insurance? Too bad …

Because internal White House documents estimate that 51% of employers are likely to have to give up their current health care coverage due to ObamaCare. And that’s the conservative estimate. Worst case, the percentage goes to 69% of all employers and 80% of smaller firms.

Why? Well, ObamaCare states that existing insurance plans will be “granfathered in” (i.e. you can “keep your plan”) if they meet certain criteria. Main among them is employers may not make any changes to their existing insurance plan after March 23rd of this year until the ObamaCare implementation of this provision on Jan. 1st, 2014. Those changes an employer might make that would bar it from being grandfathered in include:

• It eliminates benefits related to diagnosis or treatment of a particular condition.

• It increases the percentage of a cost-sharing requirement (such as co-insurance) above its level as of March 23, 2010.

• It increases the fixed amount of cost-sharing such as deductibles or out-of-pocket limits by a total percentage measured from March 23, 2010, that is more than the sum of medical inflation plus 15 percentage points.

• It increases co-payments from March 23, 2010, by an amount that is the greater of: medical inflation plus 15 percentage points or medical inflation plus $5.

• The employer’s share of the premium decreases more than 5 percentage points below what the share was on March 23, 2010.

Most of us who have and have had insurance for any amount of time know that those are fairly routine changes driven by cost increases, benefit changes, and the like. However, any of those puts the plan outside the “grandfathered” status and the ObamaCare law requires the firm to either adopot a new plan or drop coverage and pay a penalty.

How likely is it employers won’t make those sorts of changes in the next 3 years? Not very:

Analyzing data on employer-provided plans from 2008 and 2009, the report stated: “Many employers who made changes between 2008 and 2009 that would have caused them to relinquish grandfather status did so based on exceeding one of the cost-sharing limits.”

In total, 66% of small businesses and 47% of large businesses made a change in their health care plans last year that would have forfeited their grandfathered status.

. Essentially government has taken away the ability of employers to manage their plans and will, by force of law, force any of them that do so within the criteria above to drop that plan for another or drop coverage altogether and pay a penalty.

The document in which this information was found is a draft HHS, Labor and IRS joint study of the impact of the bill. When asked about it, a White House spokesman said:

“This is a draft document, and we will be releasing the final regulation when it is complete. The president made a promise to the American people that if they liked their health care plan, they can keep it. The regulation, when finalized, will uphold that promise.”

That, of course, is the official talking point position, aka spin, or if you prefer, smoke and mirrors. The same official then conceded:

“It is difficult to predict how plans and employers will behave in the coming years, but if plans make changes that negatively impact consumers, then they will lose their grandfather status.”

That is the unspun or “it’s exactly as you said it” version. And of course the government will waste no time blaming the loss of the insurance “you like” on your employer.

Because, as we’ve witnessed for 16 months – that’s what this administration does best – blame-shifting. Simple fact: no law, no loss of the “insurance you like”.

End of story.

~McQ

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Our Whiner-in-Chief

This is just shameless.

In an interview with Roger Simon of Politico, our Presidential blame-shifter creates a hypothetical situation in an attempt to divert attention from his poor performance to unnamed Congressional persons:

“I think it’s fair to say, if six months ago, before this spill had happened, I had gone up to Congress and I had said we need to crack down a lot harder on oil companies and we need to spend more money on technology to respond in case of a catastrophic spill, there are folks up there, who will not be named, who would have said this is classic, big-government overregulation and wasteful spending.”

What they may or may not of have “said” is irrelevant to the fact that 6 months ago, had he gone up to Congress and said a crack down was needed, he’d have enjoyed substantial majorities in both the House and Senate allowing him to do exactly that. In fact he didn’t go to Congress, he didn’t say there needed to be a crack down and he didn’t initiate any new legislation to do so.

His 16 months in office apparently weren’t enough to oversee any necessary changes in Minerals Management Service to better regulate drilling and it was under his administration that the Deepwater Horizon platform was awarded a government award for safety in 2009 for “outstanding drilling operations” and a “perfect performance period.”

In other words, any failure on the part of government rests squarely in his lap.

“Some of the same folks who have been hollering and saying ‘do something’ are the same folks who, just two or three months ago, were suggesting that government needs to stop doing so much,” Obama said. “Some of the same people who are saying the president needs to show leadership and solve this problem are some of the same folks who, just a few months ago, were saying this guy is trying to engineer a takeover of our society through the federal government that is going to restrict our freedoms.”

Here he resorts to a classic logical fallacy: the strawman argument. Those arguing that he’s trying to “engineer a takeover of our society” weren’t arguing about executing the basic functions of government. They were talking about takeovers of banks, financial institutions, car companies, health care and other areas not associated with those basic function. Disaster relief and mitigation – that’s considered a basic function and no one is hollering that shouldn’t happen as it always has. Taking over GM? That relates to what those people were “hollering” about. That is an unprecedented takeover. That is an indication of the point those people are making. Containing an oil spill in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico? That’s Obama’s job.

So the implication here is he’s either not doing his job because those same people will holler, or those people hollering are hypocrites (and he hopes that distracts you from the fact that he’s not doing his job (the strawman fallacy comes under the broad category of “fallacies of distraction”)).

Here’s a hint for our erstwhile President: ducking responsibility and blame-shifting are not among the principles of leadership.

Clarence Darrow once said, “when I was a boy I was told that anyone could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

Unfortunately, so am I.

[Another good takedown here.]

~McQ

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Mortgages, “tax expenditures” and jujutsu

I disagree with one point in Michael’s otherwise fine post about the mortgage interest deduction.  It’s something I hear frequently from fiscal conservatives, and it’s a nice sentiment, but we need a better argument.

Michael writes,

…we cannot accept the equivalence drawn between wealth transfers like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, and tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction (MID). In one case, the government is taking money from someone else (despite how it has been characterized) and giving it to another, while in the other situation the government is simply deciding how much of one’s hide it will charge for its oh-so-wonderful services (a.k.a. taxes). It’s the difference between transferring money from one to another, and refraining from taking the money in the first place.

But targeted tax breaks aren’t really different, in practice, from subsidies.  The numbers would work out the same if the feds cut checks each year to people who hold mortgages, but we think of the tax break as allowing people to preserve their status quo, while we think of the subsidy as an intervention.

Somebody always has to pay for government spending.  A targeted tax break just means the government is going to force other taxpayers to pay for the spending, and when we’re running a deficit, that means future taxpayers.

I anticipate the counter-argument that if we send Congress more money to cover deficits, they’ll just ramp up their spending until they have equally large deficits again, so we won’t “save” future taxpayers a dime.  I have two responses:

  1. That sounds like a fine argument for requiring balanced budgets.
  2. It appears that nothing short of catastrophic deficits motivates politicians to cut back on spending, and even that is an iffy proposition, so if fiscal conservatives are serious about governing, we  need a better strategy than holding the Alamo on taxes.

What’s important for small-government tax policy is that taxes should (1) make people sensitive to increases in government spending (requiring balanced budgets helps), and (2) be simple and broad-based, not a tool for tinkering with social policy.

On the latter point, maybe I should give credit to Democrats for trying to undermine some of the biggest obstacles to the flat tax: the employer health benefits exemption and mortgage interest deduction.  I see potential for some political jujutsu: Republicans can let the Democrats take the heat for killing the deduction, and just push for other flat-tax provisions that tend to compensate the losers.  Lose the battle, win the war.

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Dale’s Observations For 2010-06-11

Knock-knock.
Who's there?
IRS.
IRS who?
The Internal Revenue Service. #failedjokes #

As far as #worldcup soccer goes, any sport so boring they take commercial breaks without stopping the on-field "action" isn't worth watching #

Who keeps digging holes in my back yard? I may never know… http://twitpic.com/1vuezk #

May retail sales declined 1.2%, against expectations of a 0.2% rise. And it's across the board, as ex-auto sales were down 1.1%. #

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If ignorance is bliss, this is one happy White House

The cluelessness continues in the White House about the impact of the 6 month moratorium on drilling in the Gulf in waters over 500 feet. Taking the BP disaster as 100% certain without out such a moratorium, the administration has effectively stopped work on 33 deepwater exploration rigs in the Gulf . Energy Tomorrow gives a good round up of what the experts are saying about this policy:

•Adam Sieminski of Deutsche Bank predicted that U.S. oil production could fall by 160,000 barrels of oil per day by next year. (Financial Times)

•Bernstein Research said delays from the moratorium and rising costs stemming from new safety regulations are likely to raise the marginal cost of deepwater production by about 10 percent. (Financial Times)

•Paul Cheng of Barclays Capital warned that the higher costs could eliminate small independent companies who compete for drilling projects against the majors. (Financial Times) He also predicted an 11 percent drop in deepwater oil production. (Houston Chronicle)

•The Houston Chronicle reports that two large oil-services companies are relocating workers from the Gulf of Mexico to onshore North America drill sites and Brazil.

•The National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA) predicts that relocation is just part of the pain to be suffered by energy workers. Burt Adams, NOIA’s chairman, said in a statement, “the [president’s] order will be felt by the families of tens of thousands of offshore workers who will be unemployed.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) estimates that the moratorium will cost us 130,000 barrels of oil a day by 2011 and up to 500,000 a day by 2013. And it could put up to 46,200 jobs at risk short-term and as many as 120,000 over the long term.

So the blanket moratorium has some real down-side to it. And it is important that our leaders understand that and are sensitive to it, especially when we’re in the economic doldrums right how, the oil spill has all but devastated fishing in the area and the resort towns who normally thrive in the summer are feeling the impact of the spill. Risking that many jobs with a blanket moratorium is just not good policy.

So how sensitive to all of this is the White House? Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal found out recently:

Jindal said he had a conference call with President Barack Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, and appealed to her to shorten the six-month moratorium, arguing that a half-year pause would force oil companies to move drilling operations overseas for years and that the federal government could easily impose new safety standards and monitoring in a shorter time frame.

“She asked again why the rigs simply wouldn’t come back after six months,” Jindal said. “What worries me is I fear they think these rigs can just flip a switch on and off.”

Gross ignorance is all that can be called. These rigs cost about $500,000 a day for oil companies. You do the math. Those owning the rigs probably wouldn’t mind sitting around, doing nothing and getting paid 90 million for each rig. But the oil companies are going to move them, while they have them under contract, to foreign leases they own in order to seek oil.

Exploration rigs have always been at a premium (which is why their daily rate is so high), and they’re constantly working somewhere – as long as the price of oil supports such exploration. But since half a year is the apparent non-negotiable moratorium, those rigs are going to pull up stakes and move to foreign leases – leaving the oil untapped, and providing jobs elsewhere. We end up with higher unemployment and more dependent on foreign oil than ever.

And our leaders haven’t a clue.

~McQ

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More Israeli blockade challenges planned

It appears every pro-Palestinian activist group of more than two people is planning on staging a run at the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip. The ostensible reason is to get much needed supplies and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians living in Gaza.

A group of German and European Jews is probably the most unique of the groups planning such a mission.

“We want to break the Gaza occupation and end the occupation of the West Bank as well,” Kate Katzenstein-Leiterer, a member of the executive committee of the European Jews for a Just Peace, which is organizing the mission, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “We as Jews want to bring the Palestinians something other than bombs.”

It is always interesting to see such groups elide past the reason for the blockade and lay all the violence on the Israeli side. Certainly not surprising. In fact, it is necessary to develop the false premise that this is all Israel’s fault.

The ship, whose current location in the Mediterranean is being kept secret, will be carrying school supplies, musical instruments, children’s clothing and “stuff for children that Israel has forbidden, such as sweets and chocolates.”

Here’s the irony. In fact there’s a lot of irony here. One, there is rampant unemployment in Gaza. But, when there are certain items embargoed, Gazan Palestinians have started businesses to make up for that. When embargoed items are smuggled in, they put those businesses out of business. This isn’t an argument for continuing to embargo sweets, it is an acknowledgment of the impact of doing so.

Irony two. They could land all of that intact in Egypt and have it shipped through the Egyptian border with Gaza without a single confrontation with the Israelis. So this isn’t about “humanitarian aid” or bringing the Palestinians “something other than bombs”. That way is clear.

This is obviously about confrontation, publicity and attempting to embarrass Israel.

The final irony is that Egypt might not be as open to their shipment as one might imagine. After all, it is a boat load of Jews we’re talking about here.

~McQ

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Looting Taxpayers: Mortgage Interest Deduction Editon

Government policy is always the unpredictable bugbear of free-marketeers. Yet, while it’s irresistibly tempting for some to lambaste libertarian types as the pie-in-the-sky Utopians, the latest tax policy scheme to come from the Obama administration is by far the most outlandish fantasy around:

The popular tax break for mortgage interest, once considered untouchable, is falling under the scrutiny of policymakers and economic experts seeking ways to close huge deficits.

Although Congress last year rejected the White House’s proposed cut to the amount wealthier taxpayers can deduct for home mortgage interest payments, the administration included it again in its 2010 budget — saying it could save $208 billion over the next decade.

Stop. Think. How is the federal government going to “save” money by charging taxpayers more? Answer: it isn’t. Raising taxes doesn’t “save” anything but the government’s ability to spend more of your money.

And now that sentiment has turned against all the federal red ink — and cost-cutting is in vogue — Democrats on President Barack Obama’s financial commission are considering the wisdom of permanent tax breaks such as the mortgage deduction and corporate deferral. Calling them “tax entitlements,” senior Democratic lawmakers have argued they should be on the table for reform just like traditional entitlement programs Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

Again, we need to reject that implicit assumption — i.e. that the money being “saved” is the government’s to begin with. In addition, we cannot accept the equivalence drawn between wealth transfers like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, and tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction (MID). In one case, the government is taking money from someone else (despite how it has been characterized) and giving it to another, while in the other situation the government is simply deciding how much of one’s hide it will charge for its oh-so-wonderful services (a.k.a. taxes). It’s the difference between transferring money from one to another, and refraining from taking the money in the first place.

The new spotlight on the mortgage deduction and other tax expenditures comes as the Obama administration and Congress consider ways to reduce deficits the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects will average nearly $1 trillion over the next decade.

And there is the real problem: government spending. Because Congress has been so profligate for decades, we’re all in a real pickle now. In order to cover their own derrieres, the government needs to find new revenue. And that’s where we, the taxpayers, come in.

What’s really happening is a tax hike. Where a homeowner paid X dollars on Y adjusted gross income (AGI) before, that homeowner would be paying X+ dollars on Y + ($ spent on mortgage interest), which equals much greater tax burden.

It is true that this is a “tax break” in that the government is taking less of your money than it otherwise would, and that the tax is not spread evenly across the population. In that sense, there is no question that the “tax break” is not really fair. People who claim that this is nothing more than social engineering (by incentivizing home ownership over renting) are correct. Aside from current tax policy (where interest earned is taxed as capital gains, but interest spent is only capital loss on homes), there really is not any valid reason why owners should be treated differently than renters. The government decided that home ownership was a good idea for “society” and thus the MID was born. But now that we homeowners have been led down the primrose path, how fair is it to push us into a thicket of thorns?

Whatever the fairness, the consequences of ending MID will be drastic at best. Not only would it lower home prices in the midst of a recession, it would cast thousands (perhaps magnitudes more) of homeowners, who are currently paying their mortgages, into bankruptcy almost overnight. And don’t forget, the Bush tax cuts are going to expire on January 1, 2011. That’s a devastating double whammy. Taxpayers will be crushed, tax revenues will sink even further, and the economy may start living up to its unheralded name of “The Great Depression Part II.”

Obviously, I have a vested interest in the outcome of this policy debate. While I don’t really have any problem with ending the MID tax break (and, in fact, find much to commend about it), doing it now, without any sort of grandfather clause, would be a catastrophe. Those who relied on MID when deciding to purchase a home will be left out to dry, many of whom won’t be able to pay their mortgages in the face of severe tax hikes.

Heck, even with a grandfather clause, a struggling housing market won’t be revived by tanking home values and discouraging ownership. The only realistic result will be to, at best, trap people in their current homes and make prospective purchasers quite wary (if they could even get a loan).

Regardless of my personal interest, the impetus behind this idea is positively ludicrous. No matter what anyone says, it will not raise tax revenue. Instead, it is destined to lower them, along with the standard of living for Americans in general. Citizens who have invested in homes only to find that they are now ratcheted up into a much higher tax bracket are not likely to continue paying for those homes, nor to keep their incomes as such a level as to be penalized. People really do respond to incentives.

Whether or not this trial balloon floats, it is a good indicator of what’s to come. A government without revenue is like a starving beast on the prowl. It needs its sustenance, and it will find a way to feed, by force or guile. As I said a few weeks ago:

No matter how ingenious the plan, or divine the motives, the only way for governments to fund the welfare state is to tax the wealth-creators. As even the most Marxist of intellectuals knows, if you want less of something, then tax it. This is why cigarettes are levied against in ridiculous proportions, and why carbon taxes are considered (by some) to be the savior of our planet. Well, taxing wealth-creation works exactly the same way: tax it more, and you will get less of it. Which leads to the inexorable conclusion that, as the governments of the world sink deeper into fiscal crisis, the looters will be coming en masse.

This is the first wave of the looters. Expect more.

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Dale’s Observations For 2010-06-10

If you think AT&T's data network sucks now, wait 'til iPhone 4 users start streaming HD video. Or trying to, anyway. http://bit.ly/aSR1zb #

Obama kills the mortgage interest deduction in the 2011 budget. Drowning kittens in a sack would be more popular. http://bit.ly/cIF2xE #

Jebus Cripes, how is it that we here in California keep sending this dolt back to Senate?! http://bit.ly/crJxdd #

The whole point of uaving a CEO is so the board doesn't have to oversee every decision. #

Gibbs to press: O hasn't spoken to BP CEO 'cuz the board has to approve the CEO's decisions. Pure BS. Corporations aren't run that way. #

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Democrats new immigration approach? Talk like Republicans

It may soon no longer be cool among Democratic legislators to call those that show up here illegally “undocumented workers”. Polls tell them to say “illegal immigrants”. Because that’s what the vast majority of Americans call them.

And drop the “earned path to citizenship” stuff too. It should be “unacceptable” that 12 million illegals are living here. Government should “require” them to “get right with the law”. That means “Obey our laws, learn our language and pay our taxes” or they’re out of here.

Those are the recommendations of some Democratic operatives that have been studying the issue since the 2007 defeat of comprehensive immigration reform. They’ve done extensive polling and what that has told them is, well, Republicans have the lead on this one.

Here’s the new Democratic pitch:

“This time around, the message starts with a pledge to secure the borders and crack down on employers. It then moves to this: “It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country who are outside the system. We must require illegal immigrants to register for legal status, pay their taxes, learn English and pass criminal background checks to remain in the country and work toward citizenship. Those who have a criminal record or refuse to register should be deported.”

Of course the devil is not only in the details but in the implementation. We’ve heard all the happy talk about securing the border before. And yet it remains terribly porous.

I can’t wait to hear these yahoos try to spin this as the plan all along. I can’t wait to hear the reaction of tha part of the Latin community that looked to the Democrats to ease their path. And, of course, I can’t wait to here Mexico’s reaction.

~McQ

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