Monday, April 28, 2014

High Plains Moochers

APRIL 27, 2014

Paul Krugman

It is, in a way, too bad that Cliven Bundy — the rancher who became a right-wing hero after refusing to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land, and bringing in armed men to support his defiance — has turned out to be a crude racist. Why? Because his ranting has given conservatives an easy out, a way to dissociate themselves from his actions without facing up to the terrible wrong turn their movement has taken.

For at the heart of the standoff was a perversion of the concept of freedom, which for too much of the right has come to mean the freedom of the wealthy to do whatever they want, without regard to the consequences for others.

Start with the narrow issue of land use. For historical reasons, the federal government owns a lot of land in the West; some of that land is open to ranching, mining and so on. Like any landowner, the Bureau of Land Management charges fees for the use of its property. The only difference from private ownership is that by all accounts thegovernment charges too little — that is, it doesn’t collect as much money as it could, and in many cases doesn’t even charge enough to cover the costs that these private activities impose. In effect, the government is using its ownership of land to subsidize ranchers and mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.

It’s true that some of the people profiting from implicit taxpayer subsidies manage, all the same, to convince themselves and others that they are rugged individualists. But they’re actually welfare queens of the purple sage.

And this in turn means that treating Mr. Bundy as some kind of libertarian hero is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. Suppose he had been grazing his cattle on land belonging to one of his neighbors, and had refused to pay for the privilege. That would clearly have been theft — and brandishing guns when someone tried to stop the theft would have turned it into armed robbery. The fact that in this case the public owns the land shouldn’t make any difference.

So what were people like Sean Hannity of Fox News, who went all in on Mr. Bundy’s behalf, thinking? Partly, no doubt, it was the general demonization of government — if someone looks as if he is defying Washington, he’s a hero, never mind the details. Partly, one suspects, it was also about race — not Mr. Bundy’s blatant racism, but the general notion that government takes money from hard-working Americans and gives it to Those People. White people who wear cowboy hats while profiting from government subsidies just don’t fit the stereotype.

Most of all, however — or at least that’s how it seems to me — the Bundy fiasco was a byproduct of the dumbing down that seems ever more central to the way America’s right operates.

American conservatism used to have room for fairly sophisticated views about the role of government. Its economic patron saint used to be Milton Friedman, who advocated aggressive money-printing, if necessary, to avoid depressions. It used to include environmentalists who took pollution seriously but advocated market-based solutions like cap-and-trade or emissions taxes rather than rigid rules.

The selfish self righteous ignorance of the far right where "it's all about me me and getting everything I can get regardless of anyone or...

But today’s conservative leaders were raised on Ayn Rand’s novels and Ronald Reagan’s speeches (as opposed to his actual governance, which was a lot more flexible than the legend). They insist that the rights of private property are absolute, and that government is always the problem, never the solution.

The trouble is that such beliefs are fundamentally indefensible in the modern world, which is rife with what economists call externalities — costs that private actions impose on others, but which people have no financial incentive to avoid. You might want, for example, to declare that what a farmer does on his own land is entirely his own business; but what if he uses pesticides that contaminate the water supply, or antibiotics that speed the evolution of drug-resistant microbes? You might want to declare that government intervention never helps; but who else can deal with such problems?

Well, one answer is denial — insistence that such problems aren’t real, that they’re invented by elitists who want to take away our freedom. And along with this anti-intellectualism goes a general dumbing-down, an exaltation of supposedly ordinary folks who don’t hold with this kind of stuff. Think of it as the right’s duck-dynastic moment.

You can see how Mr. Bundy, who came across as a straight-talking Marlboro Man, fit right into that mind-set. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a bit more straight-talking than expected.

I’d like to think that the whole Bundy affair will cause at least some of the people who backed him to engage in self-reflection, and ask how they ended up lending support, even briefly, to someone like that. But I don’t expect it to happen.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Health Care Nightmares

APRIL 10, 2014

Paul Krugman

When it comes to health reform, Republicans suffer from delusions of disaster. They know, just know, that the Affordable Care Act is doomed to utter failure, so failure is what they see, never mind the facts on the ground.

Thus, on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader,dismissed the push for pay equity as an attempt to “change the subject from the nightmare of Obamacare”; on the same day, the nonpartisan RAND Corporation released a study estimating “a net gain of 9.3 million in the number of American adults with health insurance coverage from September 2013 to mid-March 2014.” Some nightmare. And the overall gain, including children and those who signed up during the late-March enrollment surge, must be considerably larger.

But while Obamacare is looking like anything but a nightmare, there are indeed some nightmarish things happening on the health care front. For it turns out that there’s a startling ugliness of spirit abroad in modern America — and health reform has brought that ugliness out into the open.

Let’s start with the good news about reform, which keeps coming in. First, there was the amazing come-from-behind surge in enrollments. Then there were a series of surveys — from Gallup, the Urban Institute, and RAND — all suggesting large gains in coverage. Taken individually, any one of these indicators might be dismissed as an outlier, but taken together they paint an unmistakable picture of major progress.

But wait: What about all the people who lost their policies thanks to Obamacare? The answer is that this looks more than ever like a relatively small issue hyped by right-wing propaganda. RAND finds that fewer than a million people who previously had individual insurance became uninsured — and many of those transitions, one guesses, had nothing to do with Obamacare. It’s worth noting that, so far, not one of the supposed horror stories touted in Koch-backed anti-reform advertisements has stood up to scrutiny, suggesting that real horror stories are rare.

It will be months before we have a full picture, but it’s clear that the number of uninsured Americans has already dropped significantly — not least in Mr. McConnell’s home state. It appears that around 40 percent of Kentucky’s uninsured population has already gained coverage, and we can expect a lot more people to sign up next year.

Republicans clearly have no idea how to respond to these developments. They can’t offer any real alternative to Obamacare, because you can’t achieve the good stuff in the Affordable Care Act, like coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, without also including the stuff they hate, the requirement that everyone buy insurance and the subsidies that make that requirement possible. Their political strategy has been to talk vaguely about replacing reform while waiting for its inevitable collapse. And what if reform doesn’t collapse? They have no idea what to do.

At the state level, however, Republican governors and legislators are still in a position to block the act’s expansion of Medicaid, denying health care to millions of vulnerable Americans. And they have seized that opportunity with gusto: Most Republican-controlled states, totaling half the nation, have rejected Medicaid expansion. And it shows. The number of uninsured Americans is dropping much faster in states accepting Medicaid expansion than in states rejecting it.

What’s amazing about this wave of rejection is that it appears to be motivated by pure spite. The federal government is prepared to pay for Medicaid expansion, so it would cost the states nothing, and would, in fact, provide an inflow of dollars. The health economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the principal architects of health reform — and normally a very mild-mannered guy — recently summed it up: The Medicaid-rejection states “are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.” Indeed.

 

And while supposed Obamacare horror stories keep on turning out to be false, it’s already quite easy to find examples of people who diedbecause their states refused to expand Medicaid. According to one recent study, the death toll from Medicaid rejection is likely to run between 7,000 and 17,000 Americans each year.

But nobody expects to see a lot of prominent Republicans declaring that rejecting Medicaid expansion is wrong, that caring for Americans in need is more important than scoring political points against the Obama administration. As I said, there’s an extraordinary ugliness of spirit abroad in today’s America, which health reform has brought out into the open.

And that revelation, not reform itself — which is going pretty well — is the real Obamacare nightmare.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing Off the Unemployed

FEB. 9, 2014

    Paul Krugman

      Back in 1987 my Princeton colleague Alan Blinder published a very good book titled “Hard Heads, Soft Hearts.” It was, as you might guess, a call for tough-minded but compassionate economic policy. Unfortunately, what we actually got — especially, although not only, from Republicans — was the opposite. And it’s difficult to find a better example of the hardhearted, softheaded nature of today’s G.O.P. than what happened last week, as Senate Republicans once again used the filibuster to block aid to the long-term unemployed.

    What do we know about long-term unemployment in America?

    First, it’s still at near-record levels. Historically, the long-term unemployed — those out of work for 27 weeks or more — have usually been between 10 and 20 percent of total unemployment. Today the number is 35.8 percent. Yet extended unemployment benefits, which went into effect in 2008, have now been allowed to lapse. As a result, few of the long-term unemployed are receiving any kind of support.

    Second, if you think the typical long-term unemployed American is one of Those People — nonwhite, poorly educated, etc. — you’re wrong, according to research by the Urban Institute’s Josh Mitchell. Half of the long-term unemployed are non-Hispanic whites. College graduates are less likely to lose their jobs than workers with less education, but once they do they are actually a bit more likely than others to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed. And workers over 45 are especially likely to spend a long time unemployed.

    Third, in a weak job market long-term unemployment tends to be self-perpetuating, because employers in effect discriminate against the jobless. Many people have suspected that this was the case, and last year Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University provided a dramatic confirmation. He sent out thousands of fictitious résumés in response to job ads, and found that potential employers were drastically less likely to respond if the fictitious applicant had been out of work more than six months, even if he or she was better qualified than other applicants.

    What all of this suggests is that the long-term unemployed are mainly victims of circumstances — ordinary American workers who had the bad luck to lose their jobs (which can happen to anyone) at a time of extraordinary labor market weakness, with three times as many people seeking jobs as there are job openings. Once that happened, the very fact of their unemployment made it very hard to find a new job.

    So how can politicians justify cutting off modest financial aid to their unlucky fellow citizens?

    Some Republicans justified last week’s filibuster with the tired old argument that we can’t afford to increase the deficit. Actually, Democrats paired the benefits extension with measures to increase tax receipts. But in any case this is a bizarre objection at a time when federal deficits are not just falling, but clearly falling too fast, holding back economic recovery.

    For the most part, however, Republicans justify refusal to help the unemployed by asserting that we have so much long-term unemployment because people aren’t trying hard enough to find jobs, and that extended benefits are part of the reason for that lack of effort.

    People who say things like this — people like, for example, Senator Rand Paul — probably imagine that they’re being tough-minded and realistic. In fact, however, they’re peddling a fantasy at odds with all the evidence. For example: if unemployment is high because people are unwilling to work, reducing the supply of labor, why aren’t wages going up?

    But evidence has a well-known liberal bias. The more their economic doctrine fails — remember how the Fed’s actions were supposed to produce runaway inflation? — the more fiercely conservatives cling to that doctrine. More than five years after a financial crisis plunged the Western world into what looks increasingly like a quasi-permanent slump, making nonsense of free-market orthodoxy, it’s hard to find a leading Republican who has changed his or her mind on, well, anything.

    And this imperviousness to evidence goes along with a stunning lack of compassion.

    If you follow debates over unemployment, it’s striking how hard it is to find anyone on the Republican side even hinting at sympathy for the long-term jobless. Being unemployed is always presented as a choice, as something that only happens to losers who don’t really want to work. Indeed, one often gets the sense that contempt for the unemployed comes first, that the supposed justifications for tough policies are after-the-fact rationalizations.

    The result is that millions of Americans have in effect been written off — rejected by potential employers, abandoned by politicians whose fuzzy-mindedness is matched only by the hardness of their hearts.

    Friday, February 7, 2014

    Health, Work, Lies

    FEB. 6, 2014

      Paul Krugman

      On Wednesday, Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said the obvious: losing your job and choosing to work less aren’t the same thing. If you lose your job, you suffer immense personal and financial hardship. If, on the other hand, you choose to work less and spend more time with your family, “we don’t sympathize. We say congratulations.”

      And now you know everything you need to know about the latest falsehood in the ever-mendacious campaign against health reform.

      Let’s back up. On Tuesday, the budget office released a report on the fiscal and economic outlook that included two appendices devoted to effects of the Affordable Care Act.

      The first appendix attracted almost no attention from the news media, yet it was actually a bombshell. Much public discussion of health reform is still colored by Obamacare’s terrible start, and presumes that the program remains a disaster. Some of us have pointed out that things have been going much better lately — but now it’s more or less official. The budget office predicts that first-year sign-ups in the health exchanges will fall only modestly short of expectations, and that nearly as many uninsured Americans will gain insurance as it predicted last spring.

      This good news got drowned out, however, by false claims about the meaning of the second health care appendix, on labor supply.

      It has always been clear that health reform will induce some Americans to work less. Some people will, for example, retire earlier because they no longer need to keep working to keep their health insurance. Others will reduce their hours to spend more time with their children because insurance is no longer contingent on holding a full-time job. More subtly, the incentive to work will be somewhat reduced by health insurance subsidies that fall as your income rises.

      The budget office has now increased its estimate of the size of these effects. It believes that health reform will reduce the number of hours worked in the economy by between 1.5 percent and 2 percent, which it unhelpfully noted “represents a decline in the number of full-time-equivalent workers of about 2.0 million.”

      Why was this unhelpful? Because politicians and, I’m sorry to say, all too many news organizations immediately seized on the 2 million number and utterly misrepresented its meaning. For example, Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, quickly posted this on his Twitter account: “Under Obamacare, millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs and those who keep them will see their hours and wages reduced.”

      Not a word of this claim was true. The budget office report didn’t say that people will lose their jobs. It declared explicitly that the predicted fall in hours worked will come “almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor” (emphasis added). And as we’ve already seen, Mr. Elmendorf did his best the next day to explain that voluntary reductions in work hours are nothing like involuntary job loss. Oh, and because labor supply will be reduced, wages will go up, not down.

      We should add that the budget office believes that health reform will actually reduce unemployment over the next few years.

      Just to be clear, the predicted long-run fall in working hours isn’t entirely a good thing. Workers who choose to spend more time with their families will gain, but they’ll also impose some burden on the rest of society, for example, by paying less in payroll and income taxes. So there is some cost to Obamacare over and above the insurance subsidies. Any attempt to do the math, however, suggests that we’re talking about fairly minor costs, not the “devastating effects” Mr. Cantor asserted in his next post on Twitter.

      So was Mr. Cantor being dishonest? Or was he just ignorant of the policy basics and unwilling to actually read the report before trumpeting his misrepresentation of what it said? It doesn’t matter — because even if it was ignorance, it was willful ignorance. Remember, the campaign against health reform has, at every stage, grabbed hold of any and every argument it could find against insuring the uninsured, with truth and logic never entering into the matter.

      Think about it. We had the nonexistent death panels. We had false claims that the Affordable Care Act will cause the deficit to balloon. We had supposed horror stories about ordinary Americans facing huge rate increases, stories that collapsed under scrutiny. And now we have a fairly innocuous technical estimate misrepresented as a tale of massive economic damage.

      Meanwhile, the reality is that American health reform — flawed and incomplete though it is — is making steady progress. No, millions of Americans won’t lose their jobs, but tens of millions will gain the security of knowing that they can get and afford the health care they need.

      Friday, December 6, 2013

      Obama Gets Real

      December 5, 2013

      By PAUL KRUGMAN

      Much of the media commentary on President Obama’s big inequality speech was cynical. You know the drill: it’s yet another “reboot” that will go nowhere; none of it will have any effect on policy, and so on. But before we talk about the speech’s possible political impact or lack thereof, shouldn’t we look at the substance? Was what the president said true? Was it new? If the answer to these questions is yes — and it is — then what he said deserves a serious hearing.

      And once you realize that, you also realize that the speech may matter a lot more than the cynics imagine.

      First, about those truths: Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing — and, unfortunately, all too accurate — vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.

      This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.

      And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.

      And there was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago.  A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Finally! Our political class has spent years obsessed with a fake problem — worrying about debt and deficits that never posed any threat to the nation’s future — while showing no interest in unemployment and stagnating wages. Mr. Obama, I’m sorry to say, bought into that diversion. Now, however, he’s moving on.

      Still, does any of this matter? The conventional pundit wisdom of the moment is that Mr. Obama’s presidency has run aground, even that he has become irrelevant. But this is silly. In fact, it’s silly in at least three ways.

      First, much of the current conventional wisdom involves extrapolating from Obamacare’s shambolic start, and assuming that things will be like that for the next three years. They won’t. HealthCare.gov is working much better, people are signing up in growing numbers, and the whole mess is already receding in the rear-view mirror.

      Second, Mr. Obama isn’t running for re-election. At this point, he needs to be measured not by his poll numbers but by his achievements, and his health reform, which represents a major strengthening of America’s social safety net, is a huge achievement. He’ll be considered one of our most important presidents as long as he can defend that achievement and fend off attempts to tear down other parts of the safety net, like food stamps. And by making a powerful, cogent case that we need a stronger safety net to preserve opportunity in an age of soaring inequality, he’s setting himself up for exactly such a defense.

      Finally, ideas matter, even if they can’t be turned into legislation overnight. The wrong turn we’ve taken in economic policy — our obsession with debt and “entitlements,” when we should have been focused on jobs and opportunity — was, of course, driven in part by the power of wealthy vested interests. But it wasn’t just raw power. The fiscal scolds also benefited from a sort of ideological monopoly: for several years you just weren’t considered serious in Washington unless you worshipped at the altar of Simpson and Bowles.

      Now, however, we have the president of the United States breaking ranks, finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. This is going to change the discourse — and, eventually, I believe, actual policy.

      So don’t believe the cynics. This was an important speech by a president who can still make a very big difference.

      Friday, September 20, 2013

      The Crazy Party

      September 19, 2013

      By PAUL KRUGMAN

      Early this year, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, made headlines by telling his fellow Republicans that they needed to stop being the “stupid party.” Unfortunately, Mr. Jindal failed to offer any constructive suggestions about how they might do that. And, in the months that followed, he himself proceeded to say and do a number of things that were, shall we say, not especially smart.

      Nonetheless, Republicans did follow his advice. In recent months, the G.O.P. seems to have transitioned from being the stupid party to being the crazy party.

      I know, I’m being shrill. But as it grows increasingly hard to see how, in the face of Republican hysteria over health reform, we can avoid a government shutdown — and maybe the even more frightening prospect of a debt default — the time for euphemism is past.

      It helps, I think, to understand just how unprecedented today’s political climate really is.

      Divided government in itself isn’t unusual and is, in fact, more common than not. Since World War II, there have been 35 Congresses, and in only 13 of those cases did the president’s party fully control the legislature.

      Nonetheless, the United States government continued to function. Most of the time divided government led to compromise; sometimes to stalemate. Nobody even considered the possibility that a party might try to achieve its agenda, not through the constitutional process, but through blackmail — by threatening to bring the federal government, and maybe the whole economy, to its knees unless its demands were met.

      True, there was the government shutdown of 1995. But this was widely recognized after the fact as both an outrage and a mistake. And that confrontation came just after a sweeping Republican victory in the midterm elections, allowing the G.O.P. to make the case that it had a popular mandate to challenge what it imagined to be a crippled, lame-duck president.

      Today, by contrast, Republicans are coming off an election in which they failed to retake the presidency despite a weak economy, failed to retake the Senate even though far more Democratic than Republican seats were at risk, and held the House only through a combination of gerrymandering and the vagaries of districting. Democrats actually won the popular ballot for the House by 1.4 million votes. This is not a party that, by any conceivable standard of legitimacy, has the right to make extreme demands on the president.

      Yet, at the moment, it seems highly likely that the Republican Party will refuse to fund the government, forcing a shutdown at the beginning of next month, unless President Obama dismantles the health reform that is the signature achievement of his presidency. Republican leaders realize that this is a bad idea, but, until recently, their notion of preaching moderation was to urge party radicals not to hold America hostage over the federal budget so they could wait a few weeks and hold it hostage over the debt ceiling instead. Now they’ve given up even on that delaying tactic. The latest news is that John Boehner, the speaker of the House, has abandoned his efforts to craft a face-saving climbdown on the budget, which means that we’re all set for shutdown, possibly followed by debt crisis.

      How did we get here?

      Some pundits insist, even now, that this is somehow Mr. Obama’s fault. Why can’t he sit down with Mr. Boehner the way Ronald Reagan used to sit down with Tip O’Neill? But O’Neill didn’t lead a party whose base demanded that he shut down the government unless Reagan revoked his tax cuts, and O’Neill didn’t face a caucus prepared to depose him as speaker at the first hint of compromise.

      No, this story is all about the G.O.P. First came the southern strategy, in which the Republican elite cynically exploited racial backlash to promote economic goals, mainly low taxes for rich people and deregulation. Over time, this gradually morphed into what we might call the crazy strategy, in which the elite turned to exploiting the paranoia that has always been a factor in American politics — Hillary killed Vince Foster! Obama was born in Kenya! Death panels! — to promote the same goals.

      But now we’re in a third stage, where the elite has lost control of the Frankenstein-like monster it created.

      So now we get to witness the hilarious spectacle of Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal, pleading with Republicans to recognize the reality that Obamacare can’t be defunded. Why hilarious? Because Mr. Rove and his colleagues have spent decades trying to ensure that the Republican base lives in an alternate reality defined by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Can we say “hoist with their own petard”?

      Of course, the coming confrontations are likely to damage America as a whole, not just the Republican brand. But, you know, this political moment of truth was going to happen sooner or later. We might as well have it now.