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Monday
Jun222015

Medical Records: Got Privacy?

Twila Brase is a public health nurse and the founder of the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom.  CCHF specializes in protecting medical privacy and in ways to opt out of ObamaCare and other government programs.  (For example, check out CCHF’s website called ITSMYDNA.ORG.)

In the below interview Brase explains how privacy is at great risk due to ObamaCare and HIPAA, how our medical records could be used in the future to deny us care, and what she means by our health care system needs a “Wedge of Freedom”.  It’s about a half hour long, but well worth your time.

 

Thursday
Jun182015

Health Care Odds & Ends: ObamaCare Exchanges One Problem For Another

1. First the “Front End” of the ObamaCare website was a problem.  Now the “Back End” is.  The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services released a report stating that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services “did not effectively ensure the accuracy” of $2.8 billion in exchange subsidies.  That’s bureaucracy-speak for “a lot of subsidies went to people who shouldn’t have received them.”

The Washington Examiner notes:

In late 2013, when healthcare.gov was a useless, glitchy mess for members of the public, government officials had another, less-noticed problem on their hands.

Everyone knew — many from experience and many from the news coverage — that the website the government had built to connect Americans with subsidized insurance policies did not work very well on the front end for months after its launch. The dirty secret, though, was that the back-end of the site had not even been built — the part that was supposed to make sure subsidies were set properly and insurers received payments on behalf of each customer.

Congress noticed this even then, and asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about it in a December 2013 hearing. She reassured members that it would be up and running eventually, and added, “There’s a manual workaround for virtually everything that isn’t fully automated yet.”

Only now it is becoming clear how inadequate the agency’s preparations had been.

Yeah, about $2.8 billion worth of inadequacy.

2. Of the people who faced higher insurance costs due to ObamaCare, only 1 in 5 received a subsidy. Ed Haislmaier at the Heritage Foundation notes that while the “stated purpose [of the exchange subsidies] was to help more low-income individuals purchase health insurance, the subsidies also served to mask the significant health insurance premium increases that would inevitably result from the law’s new insurance benefit requirements and regulations.  For instance, if a 45-year-old received $540 annually in subsidies, he may not realize that the premium for the lowest-cost health insurance plan in his area actually had increased by $600 a year thanks to Obamacare regulations—because the government was paying most of that additional cost.”

The problem is that “the design of the subsidies also created one of the Affordable Care Act’s biggest inequities. Namely, the number of people getting the new subsidies is only a small subset of the much larger number of people whose coverage is subject to the law’s new requirements that drove up health insurance premiums.”  ObamaCare “regulation increased health insurance costs for 20.9 million covered by individual or small-employer group policies in the 34 states affected by King v. Burwell. Of those, 18 percent received an offsetting subsidy and 82 percent did not.”

Hope and change!

3. 41 percent of people on the exchanges who were previously insured would like their old insurance back.  The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) has released an extensive survey of people who have insurance on the ObamaCare exchanges.  Turns out, all is not as rosy as ObamaCare supporters claim.  (I know, what a shocker.)  For example, most people did not purchase a plan on the exchange because it was cheaper:

 

And about 4 in 10 would like to have their old policy back:

 

The survey also asked, “ObamaCare outlawed many health insurance plans that were available before 2014. If Congress re-opens the law, should they allow people to buy the types of plans that used to be sold before 2014?”

 

The FGA survey has loads of good stuff. When you get time, take a look.

Wednesday
Jun172015

ObamaCare Premium Hikes for 2016—Ignore Them at Your Own Risk

Today the National Center is releasing my latest National Policy Analysis entitled “ObamaCare Premium Hikes for 2016—Ignore Them at Your Own Risk.”

It examines in depth the requested premium increases for individual policies on the ObamaCare exchanges for 2016 that were released via the federal website “Rate Review” back in early June.  The release of this data garnered a lot of attention, since many of the requested increases were very high.  This elicited a response from ObamaCare supporters that can be best summarized as:

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum said not to worry, that “we’ve all seen this movie before.” Drum claims these are just rates that insurers are requesting. A “few months from now, the real rate increases—the ones approved by state and federal authorities—will begin to trickle out,” he wrote. “They’ll mostly be in single digits, with a few in the low teens. The average for the entire country will end up being something like 4-8 percent.”

Well, this is something we’ve seen before.  The problem, as this table shows, is that it is getting worse:

There were 121 policies with requests for premium hikes above double digits in 2015, while there are 231 in 2016, an increase of almost 91 percent.*  For 2016 there are 26 policies with requests for hikes over 40 percent, and 12 over 50 percent.  There were none in 2015.

And Drum will probably be disappointed if he thinks state and federal regulators will reduce the rate increases for 2016.  Of the 38 exchanges examined in the NPA, only Kansas, Oregon, Texas and Washington did not approve all of the rate increases insurers requested for 2015. And only one policy was denied the requested rate increase in each of those states.

In short, the rate hikes for 2016 represent the beginning of the death spiral for the ObamaCare exchanges. Read more here.

*Initially said 46 percent.  Sorry for the error.

Tuesday
Jun162015

Ambulance Transport and Medicare's Victims

On July 6, I have my first book coming out entitled Medicare’s Victims: How the U.S. Government’s Largest Health Care Program Harms Patients and Impairs Physicians. One of the main themes of the book is that patients and physicians who struggle with Medicare usually lack political power.  In other words, they lack the ability to influence Congress to make changes in Medicare policy that would help them.

There are many reasons why they lack political power, but a big one is that they simply lack the numbers.  That is, there are too few of them to have any impact at the voting booth or to hire lobbyists to lobby on their behalf.

Case in point is a new program that Medicare has launched in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Carolina to cut down on the cost of non-emergency ambulance transports.  Unfortunately, the crack down has put some patients like Robert Browning, who genuinely need the ambulance ride, in a tough situation.

Browning is bed-ridden with leg wounds and needs an ambulance transport to the Community Medical Center for weekly treatment.  Browning now has to get approval from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) before Medicare will pay for an ambulance ride.  Browning gets his ambulance rides from Abba Medical Transportation.  Unfortunately, he is one of 20 patients who “whose claims were denied, and [Abba] had to stop transporting most of them, officials said. They couldn’t understand the reason; at times it seemed like they couldn’t get patients approved no matter how much documentation they provided.”

Now, Browning has to pay $250 out of pocket for each ride.  ”’We’re paying for it now,’ Kathie Browning said. ‘I don’t have a choice.’”

Some background:  Medicare pays for ambulance rides to the hospital and other facilities for patients who are confined to their beds and cannot be moved in a wheelchair. However, some ambulance companies seem to be abusing the service (and, perhaps, some patients are too). The cost of non-emergency ambulance transports have skyrocketed in some states.  In California, such transports rose 554 percent from 2002-2011.  In New Jersey, it rose 144 percent.  So, last year, CMS began a pilot project to eliminate such abuse.

But as happens with so many government efforts to root out fraud and abuse, those with genuine need get caught up in the net meant to catch the fraudsters.  That appears to be what has happened with Browning.

My guess is that this program will eventually expand beyond the three states in the pilot project, and patients like Browning will suffer.  The reason?  Well, here’s how Alide Walker, billing manager for Abba, put it: “I feel like they’ve been given the word, ‘You need to save money,’ and they’re saving money on the backs of patients that don’t have a voice for themselves.”

That’s correct.  There are no groups lobbying for Medicare patients who are having trouble getting access to non-emergency ambulance rides.  Nor are these patients likely to ever be a force at the voting booth.  I don’t have any hard statistics, but my guess is there are maybe a few thousand people like Robert Browning who are on Medicare at any given time in the U.S.  Spread that out accross 50 states and 435 House Districts, and it’s almost negligible.

Because the sick usually lack political power, they are unable to change government policy that causes them harm.  And that’s one of the biggest problems of any government health care system.

Monday
Jun152015

Ban Flavored E-cigarettes?

Tobaccocigarettee cigDPCW

Cities and states around the country are considering banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. The city of Minneapolis, for instance, is considering legislation on the issue this week. In my letter to the bill’s sponsors I explain why doing so would actually undermine public health.

Dear Council Members Gordon and Yang,

I am writing to share my perspective with you on the legislation under consideration that would, among other things, ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes at almost all retailers. 

I’m a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, where I analyze policy related to public health issues. I’ve testified on these issues at the United Nations, at FDA scientific meetings, and at state and local legislative hearings.

My concern regarding this legislation is that a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in almost every retailer where adult smokers buy their products-  would have the unintended consequence of undermining, rather than protecting, public health. 

The Health Department’s report on the legislation completely ignored the potential benefits of e-cigarettes as a method of harm reduction. The idea is that smokers, especially those that have had a hard time quitting, would find e-cigarettes a viable alternative to smoking. Flavors play an important role in helping adult smokers transition from smoking to using e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes often contain nicotine, but do not produce the myriad deadly chemicals from combustible cigarettes, and are as such dramatically less harmful.

In fact, the FDA’s top tobacco regulator, Mitch Zeller, explains that there is a “continuum of risk” among different nicotine containing products.

Mr. Zeller told the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Public Health, “The other example is if at the end of the day people are smoking for the nicotine, but dying from the tar, then there’s an opportunity for FDA to come up with what I’ve been calling a comprehensive nicotine regulatory policy that is agency-wide and that is keyed to something that we call the continuum of risk: that there are different nicotine containing and nicotine delivering products that pose different levels of risk to the individual.

See: http://www.rwjf.org/en/culture-of-health/2013/11/regulating_tobacco.html 

Zeller explained that, “Right now the overwhelming majority of people seeking nicotine are getting it from the deadliest and most toxic delivery system, and that’s the conventional cigarette. But if there is a continuum of risk and there are less harmful ways to get nicotine, and FDA is in the business of regulating virtually all of those products, then I think there’s an extraordinary public health opportunity for the agency to embrace some of these principles and to figure out how to incorporate it into regulatory policies.”

In other words, the FDA is aiming to use regulatory policy to move people down the continuum of risk. The city of Minneapolis should endorse the Obama administration’s approach and seek policies that further, rather than undermine, the FDA’s science-driven policy. 

Any analysis of the e-cigarette market will show that flavored e-cigarettes- flavors other than the flavors regularly found in cigarettes- are very appealing to adult smokers who are switching to e-cigarettes. 

This explains why, in its proposed “deeming regulation,” the FDA has so far resisted suggestions to restrict the sale of flavored e-cigs to adults, for this very purpose. 

The FDA is currently doing pattern of use -or PATH - studies- to determine how e-cigarettes are being used in the real world- and to determine the role of flavors on helping people move to lower risk products. The FDA is correct to evaluate the science and use it to develop appropriate regulations to protect public health- before regulating. I encourage the council to do the same.

The council should consider other means to achieve the intended and laudable result- reducing underage tobacco and e-cigarette use.  For instance, more effective enforcement on the current state-wide ban on sales of e-cigarettes to minors would be a more narrowly tailored way to prevent underage use of all tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Doing so would minimize the unintended consequence of removing flavors which appeal to adult e-cigarette users who are reducing their harm by no longer smoking cigarettes.

I’d be happy to discuss this with you in more detail if you are interested.

Sincerely,

Jeff Stier

Senior Fellow, National Center for Public Policy Research

Director, Risk Analysis Division 

Monday
Jun152015

Remember Robert Stethem

On this day in 1985, the lifeless body of Navy diver Robert Stethem was dumped on the tarmac of the Beirut International Airport by Hezbollah terrorists who hijacked TWA flight 847.

Prior to his execution, he had reportedly been beaten and tortured.  Why?  Stetham was targeted because he was a member of the American military.

Shameful.

Stethem grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Waldorf, Maryland.  To honor him, the Charles County government dedicated a group of athletic fields in his name.  The facility includes a stone monument to Stethem.

It seems, however, that Charles County officials and virtually everyone else have now forgotten Stethem’s sacrifice to our nation.

Shameful.

My wife and I drove the 25 miles from our home in Northern Virginia to the Robert D. Stethem Memorial Sports Complex on Sunday the 14th (the date the memorial there erroneously lists as when he died) to pay our respects.  We found the gates of the facility chained up and secured with three padlocks.  Not wanting to trespass, we left the flowers we brought attached to the sign along the main road.

From the looks of the county parks and recreation as well as the general government web sites, it appears officials in Charles County are oblivious to or uninterested in the major anniversary of one of their greatest heroes and facility namesake.  Locally, one community did remember – but the county as a whole may be taking a pass.  A quick Google search seems to indicate everyone else has similarly forgotten the sacrifice of Robert Stethem.

Shameful.

Please take a moment to remember Master Chief Constructionman Stethem (posthumously promoted from steelworker 2nd class).  He wasn’t Chris Kyle or Rob O’Neill – he was merely a humble serviceman returning home from an innocuous assignment abroad.  He was targeted for heinous abuse, a bullet to the temple and carelessly thrown from the hijacked plane solely because of his nationality and his vocation.

Of the four hijackers, only one was caught and convicted (but subsequently walked free).  Another died in 2008 – an apparent victim of an act of terrorism.  The others have disappeared.

Shameful.

Terrorism, 30 years later, remains a major problem facing the United States and the world.  Do not let Robert Stethem, or other victims of cowardly acts of terrorism, be forgotten.

Friday
Jun052015

Despite High Jobs Numbers for May, Obama Still Has the American Economy in a Ditch

In his ongoing analysis of the state of the American economy under President Obama’s stewardship, Project 21 member Derryck Green isn’t feeling so great these days about having been right in his previous month’s speculation that the economy was already on a downward slide.

Derryck’s dismay over that, and poor economic indicators all over the place, are now on display — including what’s found in today’s federal unemployment report — and chronicled in his latest edition of “About Those Jobs Numbers”:

Told ya so.

Trust me, however, I regret being right.  When it comes to being right about our tanking economy, there’s nothing to be gained in gloating.

In last month’s “About Those Jobs Numbers,” I lamented the recently-posted and very weak 0.2 percent growth in the national gross domestic product (GDP).  I feared the GDP could be worse than stated, and I suggested at the time that “[t]here are economists who believe that this number will actually be revised to show negative growth once all the numbers are known.”

It was.  The GDP did really shrink by 0.7 percent upon a revision to the report announced in late May.  No growth whatsoever.  A contraction of the economy, in fact.  It’s the fourth quarter during the course of the Obama Administration in which this has happened.  And it could be worse this time.  Jeremy Lawson, the chief economist at Standard Life Investment, speculated in the Washington Post that the economy may now “rebound more slowly” than it had after previously negative quarters due to “downward [economic] pressures that are more persistent than in the past.”

Of course, the Obama Administration and its supporters are trying to play this bad news off as a by-product of the snowy weather.  “Climate change” is an implied culprit — what they used to call “global warming.”  Jason Furman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, for example, told the Post that the economy consistently underperformed “in parallel with intensifying winter weather.”

It’s almost summer, yet I don’t see many indicators of new economic improvement.  It’s true there is still some remaining ice on the ground from Boston’s terrible storms, but it’s no excuse for a sluggish economic nationwide.  Blaming the weather is a cop-out.  Furman appears to be right.  Unfortunately.

The sad fact of the matter is that the U.S. economy is still in a “ditch”.  After all those years of his leadership and the assurance from Barack Obama when he first ran for president that he would get the American economy out of that ditch and back on track, we seem to instead be on the verge of even more economic peril.  For example:

  • Raoul Pal of the Global Macro Investor newsletter told CNBC that “[t]here is a probability that the U.S. goes into recession this year…”
  • Back in March, the “Bloomberg ECO U.S. Surprise Index,” an alternative economic measurement pegged to how well actual economic figures matched predictions, was at its lowest success rate since the depths of the 2009 recession.  Chief Investment Officer Jack Ablin of BMO Private Bank told Bloomberg Business it could be “an early indication of a momentum shift” for the U.S. economy.
  • Economic historian Peter J. Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute argued the economy is being set up for another tumble right now.  In his new book, Hidden in Plain Sight, Wallison wrote about a “false narrative” that demonizes banks and lauds increased regulation as a cure for America’s economic ills is being successfully perpetrated by the political left.  This lie covers up a potential new crisis rooted in the same mistakes — particularly bad mortgage loans — that caused the last economic crisis.

All of this makes the newest jobless figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) — which some may try to celebrate — all the more troubling.

The official unemployment rate rose to 5.5 percent.  And the U-6 alternative rate, the indicator many people feel is the better predictor of the full unemployment picture because it adds the underemployed and able-bodied who quit looking to the official rate, remains around twice as high at 10.8 percent.  While 280,000 jobs were reportedly created in May, above the advance prediction of 201,000 jobs that was made just prior to the government announcement by the private payroll company ADP, the elation at the higher-than-expected number can only be fleeting.  That’s because the labor force participation rate remained an anemic 62.9 percent.  It’s been low like that for far too long.

Per usual, and very unfortunate at that, is also the fact that the constituencies having had the most faith in the President thus far are doing the worst under his jobs-creation agenda (or lack thereof).  Black unemployment, for instance, is up to the double-digits again at 10.2 percent (5.5 points more than whites) — with black teens suffering terribly through an astronomical jobless rate of 30.1 percent (passing back into the 30s, where it has been for much of the Obama presidency).  Hispanics are experiencing an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent.  There were an estimated 50.6 million women who were unemployed in May.

During the last month, there were some major layoffs announced despite the unexpectedly high job-creation number cited today by the BLS.  Perhaps the most noteworthy was that banking giant JPMorgan Chase would be cutting around 5,000 jobs over the course of the next year.  If this bank fails, will it be saved like big banks were in the last crisis — and saved at taxpayer expense?

It was the energy sector that seemed to take the worst hit.  Murray Energy, a coal-mining company based in the east, announced that approximately 1,800 miners would be laid off.  Alpha Natural Resources similarly announced economic worries were forcing the company to let more than 400 of its miners go as well.  Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray didn’t mince words, blaming the layoffs on “the ongoing destruction of the United States coal industry by President Barack Obama.”

But mining losses are not the only fossil fuel jobs lost in May.  In the oil industry, Schlumberger Limited announced plans to cut 20,000 employees in its oilfield services operations.  Halliburton Company is also cutting 9,000 jobs worldwide, while Baker Hughes Incorporated is shedding 10,500 jobs.

All this bad news about jobs comes as consumer prices continue to increase.  Recently-released statistics show that April was the third month in a row with increased consumer costs — climbing 0.3 percent since January.

Homeownership appears to be in decline, allegedly bringing devastating side effects along with the trend.  A new report by the National Association of Realtors found that the plunging rate of homeownership is possibly contributing to a wealth gap.  In a survey of 100 metropolitan areas, it was found there was a decline in homeownership that went hand-in-hand with an increase in the gap between the rich and poor.  This happened in over 90 of those municipalities that were studied.

Lawrence Yum, the chief economist for the Realtors, said: “Homeownership plays a pivotal role in the U.S. economy and has historically been one of the primary sources of wealth accumulation for middle-class families… [H]ome ownership has plunged to a rate not seen in over two decades.  As a result, the country has become more unequal as the number of homeowners has fallen while the number of renters has significantly risen.”

Diminishing homeownership seems to have become so much of a problem that people are compensating for it by rebranding the American Dream.  According to the results of a survey commissioned by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), only 11 percent of people now consider homeownership as the best indicator of financial success.  Replacing it is the goal of having ample savings for retirement.  AICPA’s Ernie Almonte said: “We’re seeing that today’s American Dream is greatly shifted from the one defined by previous generations.  No longer are home ownership and upward financial mobility the hallmarks of financial achievement.”

Therein lies a potential problem.

As I mentioned last month, there are too many people who aren’t saving for the retirement stability that so many now prize as the hallmark of success.  I noted that another survey of Americans found that “only 65 percent of workers polled have anything saved for retirement.  Only 28 percent say they have more than $1,000 saved for retirement, and more than a third said they haven’t saved any money at all for retirement.”

One cannot truly be preparing for a secure future and not be anticipating a nonexistent or debilitated Social Security benefit at the same time.  While the politicians seemingly ignore the problem, there’s no denying that the money going into Social Security’s coffers is being paid out to others almost as quickly and the notion of the peoples’ investment being secure is a myth.

People simply should not expect Social Security to be there for them if they fail to save enough.  It’s no longer a reliable safety net, much less a hammock.  Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, one of the most respected living economists, recently called the Social Security Trust Fund “a meaningless instrument” because there are no actual savings in it — just “current expenses.”  With the national debt “way underestimat[ed]” and the possibility of more unanticipated expenses such as new bank bailouts in the future (think JPMorgan Chase), Greenspan expressed grave pessimism about the nation’s fiscal health.

It’s a potential “perfect storm” of pain for the American economy.  Jobs are being lost, costs are rising and the traditional means of securing wealth and a stable future are slipping away.

The ditch Obama complained about in 2008 has not been overcome.  Instead, it would appear to have grown into a chasm from which the vehicle that is the American economy won’t be able to escape unless it’s super-charged very soon.

Obama asked for a shot at saving it in 2008 and failed spectacularly. 

Wednesday
Jun032015

Save Ferris: How the 80s Favorite Truant Might Rank among America’s Most Wanted Today

Principal Rooney never caught the misbehaving Ferris Bueller.  Had Matthew Broderick’s character been apprehended, at least in today’s overcriminalized society, Ferris might be very sorry he ever even thought about skipping school!

While the 30th anniversary of the release of the “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” film won’t occur until 2016, fanboys figured out that the actual day off – based on the real baseball game seen in the film – was 30 years ago June 5, 2015.

On his epic (and fictional) day off, Bueller, his girlfriend Sloane and best friend Cameron ditched school, went for a joyride, crashed a fancy restaurant and watched the Chicago Cubs lose to the Atlanta Braves.

They also appear to have broken a lot of laws that day that now carry serious consequences thanks to our penalty-obsessed system of laws.  If they were to do a reboot of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” today, it might end up looking a lot more like an episode of “Law and Order.”

Based on a 2013 analysis by San Diego criminal defense attorney Peter M. Liss and a 2009 thread on Ask MetaFilter, a laundry list of probable crimes the trio were involved in that day can be compiled: truancy (naturally), computer hacking, auto theft, identity theft (of both a police officer and the “Sausage King of Chicago”), speeding, running out on a check (presumably), copyright fraud, attempted odometer fraud, willful destruction of an automobile, jaywalking, trespass and underage drinking.

Some of those crimes, such as the theft and destruction of Cameron’s father’s classic car, are serious crimes with serious penalties for malicious intent.  Some of the others, however, may be petty crimes in comparison that nonetheless have serious repercussions.  Liss suggested, “this one day out could result in some serious criminal penalties, including lengthy jail or prison sentences.”  The one thing Liss held in the trio’s favor was that their youth and presumed lack of criminal records might result in lenient sentences.

But Ferris possibly violated copyright fraud for singing “Twist and Shout” on that parade float.  Copyright fraud penalties include jail time.  Odometer fraud can also land one in jail in some states.  And who knows what the feds might do to a computer hacker – especially a recidivist such as Matthew “WarGames” Broderick.

What was thought of as fun and games in the 80s can now be serious business in our overcriminalized nation.  People can chuckle at the movie, but the overzealous attitude of government today could have a modern-day Bueller in a courtroom instead of a movie theater.

Consider what’s happened to schoolchildren and their parents in the Washington, D.C. area in the last few years.  Most famously, there was a 12-year-old girl who was prosecuted for eating French fries on a train.  More recently, an eight-year-old boy was suspended from school for eating a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.  Just this year, a family came under investigation by Child Protective Services after the parents allowed their children to walk to a nearby park alone.

These real-life examples are even more mind-boggling than what’s up on the silver screen.  It shows just how much our government has gotten out of control in wanting to set rules.

Ferris meant no harm in his high jinks in the same way that girl caused no harm with her fries or those parents meant about their kids wanting to go outside and play.  Yet they ran afoul of the law – at great expense of time, dignity and money.  And the boy with the Pop-Tart gun has a very unusual entry that remains on his permanent record.

Laugh all you want at what’s up on the screen, but don’t forget the real-life drama of overcriminalization all around us.

Monday
Jun012015

Montana: More Evidence Death Spiral Bearing Down on ObamaCare Exchanges

More evidence that the ObamaCare exchanges are heading for a death spiral, this time from Montana:

Health insurers selling individual policies on Montana’s Affordable Care Act marketplace say rate increases are likely next year after they suffered losses they attribute in part to initial under­estimates of the costs of the new business.

Companies are filing requests for higher rates.

I’ve tracked down the average requested premium increases for companies on the Montana exchange.  They range from 22.4 percent to 45.1 percent*: 

 

Those are the types of rate hikes that can drive some of the younger and healthier folks to drop their insurance, leaving the insurance pool older and sicker.

Here are some of the losses driving those requested hikes:

PacificSource, which has its headquarters in Springfield, reported a loss of about $17 million last year. It serves about 275,000 customers on commercial insurance, Medicare plans and managed Medicaid plans.

The Montana Health Co-op, a new nonprofit insurer, lost about $4 million last year on $30 million worth of business, said its CEO, Jerry Dworak. The co-op insures about 25,000 people in Montana and another 19,000 in Idaho.

Last week I published a National Policy Analysis, entitled “The ObamaCare Death Spiral Rears Its Head,” looking at big rate increases proposed by insurers on the exchanges of five states: Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, South Dakota and Tennessee. Montana is the newest addition to the list, and to listen to a VP of PacificSource it won’t be the last:

“What we’re seeing across the country is that nearly all health insurers, large and small, are losing money in the individual marketplace,” said Todd Lovshin, vice president and Montana regional director for PacificSource,which offers policies on Montana’s marketplace.

*This blog post originally stated the highest premium increase was 46.6 percent.  That has been corrected to 45.1 percent.

Thursday
May282015

Someone Should Ask Sen. Sanders If Ben and Jerry's Offers Too Many Choices of Ice Cream

By my rough count, Ben and Jerry’s sells over fifty flavors of ice cream. Thus, it’s ironic that Ben and Jerry helped Senator Bernie Sanders kick off his campaign for president given the Senator’s recent remarks about having choices:

You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems. All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on

For a good laugh, see Reason’s “Bernie Sanders Save The Children Fund”:

Let me make one relatively quick comment:  Sen. Sanders appears to think that a free-market economy is a zero-sum game.  One person wins (the person getting the choice of deodorants or sneakers), while another loses (the hungry child).  Of course, any economist worth his weight will tell you a free-market economy is dynamic.  Both sides of a transaction win.  In the long run, that leads to the creation of more wealth which, among other things, means less starving children.  

I wonder if it ever occurs to Sanders that children are better off in America because we have so many choices of products.  Producing more choices means hiring more people, which means jobs, which means you get to eat.  But, of course, that has probably never occurred to him.  After all, he still believes the bogus notion that there are hungry children in America.

Wednesday
May272015

Krugman Wrong Again? Death Spiral Rears Its Head

In a new National Policy Analysis, I examine whether predictions of an insurance “death spiral” on the ObamaCare exchanges have been proven wrong.  

The first sign of a death spiral is insurance companies requesting big premium increases, usually in the range of at least 20 percent.  However, that didn’t happen on the exchanges in 2015.  Here’s Paul Krugman on that:

“There is no death spiral: On average, premiums for 2015 are between 2 and 4 percent higher than in 2014, which is a much slower rate of increase than the historical norm.” The lack of death spirals is one thing that “should inspire major doubts about [conservative] ideology.” According to Krugman, those who made predictions about death spirals aren’t admitting their errors but “pretend[ing] that [they] didn’t make the predictions [they] did.” This is serious stuff since refusing “to accept responsibility for past errors is a serious character flaw in one’s private life. It rises to the level of real wrongdoing when policies that affect million of lives are at stake.”

As I note in my NPA, “who says that a prediction of a death spiral is completely wrong if a death spiral doesn’t occur immediately? Indeed, while I personally expected the death spiral to begin in 2015, there is no rule saying that it always happens right away.”

Going into 2015, insurers expected that most of the losses they took on the exchanges would be covered by an ObamaCare program known as the “risk corridor.”  Under this program, taxpayers would help offset insurer losses.  As such, there was little incentive for insurers to raise premiums if the medical claims they paid exceeded what they received in premium income.

But now that Congress has stopped the risk corridor from handing out taxpayer money, insurers are starting to ask for hefty premium hikes going into 2016.  For example:

  • Five insurance companies on Oregon’s exchange are proposing average premium increases ranging from 25.6 percent to 52 percent. 

  • In Tennessee, Blue Cross/Blue Shield is asking for an average increase of 36.6 percent and Community Health Alliance is proposing a 32.6 percent increase. 

  • In New Mexico, Health Care Service Corp. is requesting a premium hike of 51.6 percent.

The death spiral appears to be rearing its head.  Of course, these could be just flukes. We’ll know more in the weeks ahead as more companies release their requests for premium increases.  But, as I say in the NPA, “at this point, the one thing that is certain is that it is much too soon for ObamaCare proponents to say that the death spiral prediction is wrong. To do so is to jump the gun. I wonder if Paul Krugman regards that as a ‘serious character flaw’… or just stupidity?”

Tuesday
May262015

ObamaCare Exchange Imposes Cap on Specialty Drugs: What Could Go Wrong?

A while back I predicted that insurers on the ObamaCare exchanges would be able to charge large co-pays for high-priced speciality drugs indefinitely, since only a small number of people take specialty drugs. Given their small numbers they would not to amount to significant political force, at least one strong enough to change policy.

Well, that theory has been proven wrong to an extent, at least in California:

[The Consumers Union] and other advocates took their concerns to Covered California, the agency that implements the Affordable Care Act in the state. The advocates argued there should be a limit on how much consumers have to pay for these drugs. 

 Apparently, they are getting their wish:

The agency agreed, and Thursday the board voted to cap the monthly out-of-pocket costs for specialty drugs. Starting in 2016, most people will only have to pay a maximum of $150 or $250 per prescription, per month. These caps are for Covered California’s so-called silver and platinum plans. Bronze plans will have caps of $500.

This policy will only apply to the 2.2 million people who buy coverage on the individual market. A bill under consideration in the California Legislature would extend that protection to many people with employer-based plans, as well.

Well, since the money to pay for specialty drugs grows on trees, I don’t see a problem here.  I mean, it’s not like anything could happen to health insurance premiums, right?

Friday
May222015

Understanding Exactly Why “Freedom Is Not Free”

As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, Project 21 member Charles Butler has a message for those who might not understand the meaning behind a holiday that many trivialize or merely consider the beginning of summer fun:

People often use phrases and idioms that sound cool and hip without really understanding their true meaning.  We will definitely be hearing one phrase of that sort this weekend: “freedom is not free.”

When people who have never served in the military use the phase “freedom is not free,” I often find it to be done in a very convoluted and disingenuous manner on many levels.  For example, we lost dozens of American lives fighting to hold Ramadi almost a decade ago, and yet campaign promises essentially gave the Iraqi town to ISIS terrorists just this week.  These brave men and women who died in service to our nation will be mourned this weekend.  Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives will be missed.

A price was paid in Ramadi for freedom, but then the investment was squandered.  That’s not right.

Americans of all ages, socio-economic status, politics, ethnicity and gender use “freedom is not free” as if they know exactly what it means to put service to their country and the commitment to an ideal before one’s own self interest.  They often do not.  The truth is that only a fraction of Americans under 50 have served their country in uniform.  Many really don’t seem to feel it is their obligation these days.

So we can establish people are often unclear on the concept of “freedom is not free.”  It’s a shame.  When people use it, do they at least even know its origins?  The honest answer is probably not.  But that’s OK.  To help, here is some background and credibility for them as we prepare to observe Memorial Day weekend.

The origin of “freedom is not free” is credited to retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Walter Hitchcock of the New Mexico Military Institute.  It is meant to express gratitude for the service of members of the military, implicitly stating that the freedoms enjoyed by those living in democracies today are only possible due to the risks taken and sacrifices made by those in the armed services.  It conveys respect — specifically to those who gave their lives in defense of our freedom.

“Freedom is not free,” for example, is engraved onto a portion of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.  While it should be a powerful phrase to all, it is particularly important to veterans.

Those of us who have served our country honorably salute and say an often-silent prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters who fought so Americans can enjoy the rights and freedoms granted to them by our Constitution.  When you are at a BBQ or watching the game this weekend, please take a moment to say at least a silent “thank you” to veterans for their service.  You might also donate to veterans’ charity to lend a helping hand to those vets who have fallen on hard times.

And you might also say a prayer for those still serving.  They seem to need it these days.

Memorial Day should not be political.  But the U.S. military has nonetheless been the object of mass social and political experiments under this and other presidential administrations.  The dishonor and immorality now being implemented in the military is an abomination.  I have spoken with many active and retired military personnel, and they all have a common complaint: the Obama Administration is disruptive and degrading to the military’s ability to do its job.  The political agenda imposed by this White House, they say, is endangering lives.

That’s why my prayer is that God protects our brave men and women, and that He gives them the support they need to do their job and return home safely and healthy to their families.   Amen.

Friday
May222015

What Do Corky the Orca and Hercules the Chimpanzee Have in Common? 

Corky Oraca Killer Whale San DiegoW

What do Corky the orca and Hercules the chimpanzee have in common? You’ll have to read my op-ed in today’s San Diego Union-Tribune.

In the piece, I explain how current legal developments that will play out over the next weeks and months, could begin to impact your ability to benefit from medical research or go to a zoo.

Here’s the short answer: 

Although those facts seem noncontroversial, both required adjudication.

In April, it took a correction from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe to establish that Hercules was not in fact a person eligible for a writ of habeas corpus. The New York Post reported that the judge “acknowledged that she inadvertently got turned into a monkey’s uncle by signing court papers, submitted by (The Nonhuman Rights Project) that inadvertently bestowed human status on two chimpanzees” used at a state university.

Chimpanzee DPC W

The case is not over. A hearing on whether the “imprisoned” chimpanzees have special humanlike rights is scheduled for May 27.

In Corky’s case, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued Seaworld seeking the release of Corky and four other whales. In the case heard in federal court in 2012, PETA sought to extend the constitutional right against slavery to whales, which the group’s lawyer, Jeffrey Kerr, awkwardly conceded, “happen not to have been born human.” 

Mr. Kerr said that PETA’s “lawsuit stands for the simple but powerful proposition that slavery does not depend on the species of the slave any more than it depends on the gender, race or religion of the slave.” He called the case “the next frontier of civil rights.”  

The piece also explains how the animal liberation movement undermines not only the interests of humans, but of animals.

When animal rights extremists raise huge sums of money off our concern for animal welfare, but use the money to advance a rights agenda, they divert critically needed money, awareness and advocacy-resources away from actual animal welfare.

Radical activists such as PETA and their allies have become better at masking their unpopular agenda. But don’t be fooled. The best way to come together and truly protect animals is to advance animal welfare and reject animal rights.

Tuesday
May192015

New York Times Columnist, Nanny State Foodie War-Monger

Bittman Mark A Bone to PickW

Imagine that. A New York Times columnist is a self-proclaimed leader of the left-wing politicization of food.

In Forbes book review together with Julie Kelly, we explain how Mark Bittman is the foodie version of a war-monger.

“There’s a war here,” the New York Times columnist proclaimed at a food conference last year. His battle is America’s next social justice crusade much like civil rights and suffrage. But this time, the oppressors are McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Monsanto. From soda to sugar to meat, Bittman has declared war on nearly every ingredient in the American food system.

And if the pen is mightier than the sword, Bittman is the literary Napoleon of the progressive food movement. He depicts our food system as enemy territory that must be conquered then ruled by the omnipotent culinary elite in Manhattan and San Francisco with support from taxpayer-funded bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

His latest book, “A Bone to Pick” (Penguin Random House, May 5), is a collection of Bittman’s NYT columns on how to “un-invent this food system” that has been “a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy and tortured billions of animals.”

Like all good social warriors, Bittman is armed with a plan for victory. The introduction of the book is his “Food Manifesto for the Future,” which lists a number of government-controlled remedies from the rational (limit subsidies) to the banal (mandate more labeling) to the outlandish (offer cooking classes for everyone and even give free cookware and cooking assistance to poor people.) Nearly every solution requires the reach of the federal government—which Bittman refers to as the “entity that is supposed to be vigilant regarding our health and welfare”—and the largess of the American taxpayer.

Other entries are somewhat comical, such as his suggestion to convert suburban lawns into vegetable gardens. “If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine though it’s a waste of water and energy…Lawns are an attempt to dominate and homogenize nature.” Another column fantasizes about his “dream food label” designed as a stoplight for witless American consumers.

But few of Bittman’s strategies are revolutionary; in fact, many have been tried with limited or no success. Consider his repeated call to limit consumption of soda, sugar and processed foods by children. He cites California’s ban on sugary drinks and restrictions on unhealthy snacks in public schools over the last several years. The result? By 2010, California’s childhood overweight/obesity rate dropped—by 1%. It’s still an eye-popping 38% among adolescents despite massive statewide efforts to stem the crisis.

He often promotes taxing unhealthy food to fund subsidies and access to healthier food, such as his idea to convert “soda machines to vending machines that dispense grapes and carrots.” Pushing fresh produce is a big goal for many urban leaders and is being tried at great expense and unknown results. The CDC’s Putting Prevention to Work fund is one such example: The federal government gave local governments money to reimburse corner stores to buy refrigerators to sell produce.

Vegetable sandwich LW

Even when food corporations try to satisfy Mr. Bittman’s agenda, he questions their motives and integrity. McDonald’s is one example; it’s a frequent target in his book. He mocks the company’s efforts to please him, writing that McDonald’s wants foodies like “…me to stop kvetching and instead acknowledge that they’re making great strides in promoting health.” He sniffs that “only the most gullible will buy” McDonald’s attempts to offer healthier menu choices. Bittman has pointed to “the decline of McDonald’s” as a win for the food movement. 

Wal-Mart is another product of capitalism on Bittman’s enemies list. Its efforts to offer more affordable produce is lambasted in the book, claiming the retailer will “beat the living daylights out of produce suppliers, crushing a few thousand more small farmers.” Apparently, to Bittman, inefficient organic farmers are more important than struggling families who want inexpensive vegetables. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery store in America with more than 3,000 stores nationwide and could play a major role in the private market’s attempt to shape eating habits. Instead, the company is ridiculed.

But Bittman and his anti-corporate allies insist that industry is the cause of obesity and can’t have a role in addressing the problem. In fact, activists including Michele Simon scoffed when the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of large food and beverage companies announced a major reduction in calories sold. Now the industry group is funding a study by the City University of New York School of Public Health to assess the impact of the industry’s healthy community programs across the country. No doubt, opponents will show their true colors and scorn the privately-funded science.

The book identifies a number of heroes, including organic products, Whole Foods and Chipotle. No doubt the Mexican restaurant chain will earn high praise from Bittman for its dubious PR stunt announcing its food is now GMO-free even though the author clearly struggles with a position on GMOs. You get the sense he supports the biotechnology—but that would be anathema among his pals in the culinary elite—so he splits the baby by supporting labels on GMO food. (Chipotle’s anti-GMO campaign is a perfect example of how difficult and questionable any nationwide labeling effort would be.)

Bittman reserves praise for another important player in the fight against food: himself. He refers to himself as a “pioneer” of the food movement and boasts that people say to him, “You’ve helped me change my life.”

But make no mistake; Bittman’s battle plan puts little emphasis on people changing their own lives. To him, “personal responsibility” is a right-wing idea that’s been proven wrong. That’s why Bittman finds it necessary to slam the private sector while advocating for shifting more resources, control and power to government officials.  Unfortunately, Bittman’s ideas are the public policy equivalent to the negative attributes of fast food he decries; slickly marketed, bereft of substance, and over time, will lead to buyer’s remorse.

Thursday
May142015

The Impact of King v. Burwell

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, what impact will it have on our health care system and our economy more broadly?  

Obviously, many people in the 37 states using the federal ObamaCare exchanges will lose their premiums subsidies.  On the other hand, many individuals in those states will no longer be subject to the individual mandate, and businesses will be free from the employer mandate.

The American Action Forum has a new study out examining those impacts entitled “TaKing Stock: The Potential Impact of King v. Burwell.”

From the report, here is the estimated impact a favorable King ruling would have on individuals:

 

 And here is the effect on employer markets:

 

 

The report also contains two interactive graphics.  The first reveals how many people in your state will be exempt from the individual mandate if the plaintiffs win in King:

 

The second shows the job effects in the 37 states with federal exchanges:

 However, it is important to note that the authors of the study “assumed that no federal congressional action would be taken between the announcement of a ruling in King and the beginning of the 2016 open enrollment season; in reality there is every indication Congress would take some action, but it is impossible at this stage to predict what it would be.”  So, Congress may yet mess it up.  But this study shows that King gives us a good starting point when it comes to regaining liberty and creating jobs. 

Wednesday
May132015

Je Suis Pamela Geller

If Pamela Geller doesn’t stand up for free speech, who will?

That’s a serious questions we need to be asking ourselves, as it is deadly obvious that one of the biggest threats to free speech comes from radical Islam.  Adherents of that ideology have shown time and again that they will kill someone who draws a cartoon of a religious icon, an activity that is protected by the First Amendment.  If freedom is to prevail, then someone like Geller must stand up to such thugs.

After all, appeasing radical Islamists won’t work.  If we were to promise the thugs that we wouldn’t draw Mohammed anymore, they’d be embolden to threaten more of our freedom.  What would they target next?  Would it be people who condemn suicide bombings, criticize the leadership of Iran, or speak out against ISIS?  Frankly, I don’t know.  All I’m certain of is if we give in on what they demand now, they’ll return with their guns drawn for more.

To stop it, someone has to draw a line in the sand.  Right now, Geller and the brave souls who participated in her “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas are the only ones who have shown the courage to do so.

Clearly the establishment won’t. That became clear back in 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten‍ published 12 cartoons of Mohammed. Despite death threats made against the newspaper and attacks against a number of Western embassies, most newspapers in the West refused to stand up for free speech by re-printing the cartoons. 

That portended the reaction to the incident in Texas. The New York Times wrote that Geller engaged in an exercise of “bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.  Even conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham waffled.  O’Reilly claimed that Geller had “spurred a violent attack,” while Ingraham said, “I don’t think that our effort to combat the Islamization of the globe is necessarily helped by putting on Muhammad… art contests.” That’s unfortunate, because Geller fights for the free speech of everyone, including the New York Times, O’Reilly, Ingraham and even of the left-wingers who condemn her in the harshest terms.  

Is Geller a nice person?  Clearly, she’s shrill and obnoxious.  But what type of person do you think is willing to stand up to murderers?  Besides, I don’t care to be friends with her or even have her over to dinner.  I only care that she fights for free speech.  

Worse than her personality is the possibility she is a racist. For the sake of argument, let’s assume she is.  Then you should suck it up, for two reasons.  First, it’s a lot harder to fight racism without freedom of speech.  Second, the thugs Geller is fighting are possessed of a racism that is exponentially more brutal than the one Geller allegedly has.  Let’s go with the lesser of two evils.

None of this would even be a concern if more in the media stood up for free speech against this barbarism.  (On that note, kudos to Megyn Kelly and Chris Hayes.)  As David Frum recently put it, “if the people doing the standing up are not in every way nice people—if they express other views that are ugly and prejudiced by any standard—then the more shame on all the rest of us for leaving the job to them.”

Until there is an alternative to Geller, she’s pretty much all we’ve got in the fight for freedom of speech against radical Islam.

Geller has said she’d be holding another event like the one in Garland, Texas at some point in the future.  I’ll be cheering her all the way.

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers!

Tuesday
May122015

Health Care Odds & Ends: ObamaCare State Exchanges Disaster Edition

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “Nearly half of the 17 insurance marketplaces set up by the states and the District under President Obama’s health law are struggling financially.”

Here are some of the worst:

1. Hawaii.  The Hawaii Health Connector won’t be struggling anymore as it is being put out of its misery. The Connector has “prepared a contingency plan to shut down operations by Sept. 30 after lawmakers failed to pass legislation to keep the state’s troubled Obamacare insurance exchange afloat.”  The Connector charges fees on insurance, like most exchanges do, to help keep operations going.  Unfortunately, enrollment has not been high enough to raise the fees needed to cover the Connector’s costs.

2. Vermont.  Technical failures and security problems have plagued the Vermont Health Connect almost from the beginning.  A recent audit found that “serious problems remain with the troubled Vermont Health Connect insurance exchange and questions whether the state can meet deadlines for needed system developments to address the shortcomings.”  Vermont is considering dumping its exchange and joining the federal one.

3. Minnesota.  Pretty much the same problems as Vermont, with same possible result: dumping the whole mess over to the Feds.

4. Colorado. Annual budget shortfalls for Connect for Health Colorado range from $28 million to $55 million in the next few years.  One of the board members, Arnold Salazar, said“Clearly our fees are too low.”  Do you suppose we’ll ever see the day when a government functionary, facing a budget deficit, says, “Clearly, our costs are too high”?  The fees on insurance are currently 1.4 percent and may triple to 4.5 percent.

5. Massachusetts. The Commonwealth Connector has faced not only serious technical difficulties, it now faces a federal investigation.  The “administration of Republican Governor Charlie Baker [has] confirmed that the FBI and U.S. Attorney for Boston have subpoenaed records related to the commonwealth’s ‘connector’ dating to 2010,” according to the Wall Street Journal.  Josh Archambault of the Pioneer Institute has released a report on the Connector mess, claiming that “Our 
public officials not only were incompetent from a managerial perspective, but appear to have lied to the federal government to cover up mistakes made by both the state and CGI.”  Good summary here.  Report here.

Monday
May112015

RAD Calls Out Caving Corporations

“More Saving. More Doing.” That’s the Home Depot slogan. But after reading this NRO op-ed I co-authored with the Hoover Institution’s Dr. Henry I. Miller, you might think it should be, “More Caving. Less Flooring.”

And of course, Lowe’s, “Never Stop Improving,” would be “Never Stop Giving Up.” 

Why? Because these home improvement mega-chains would rather stick their consumers with higher prices and inferior products, than take on left-wing activists.

As we wrote,  

Both of the nation’s retail hardware behemoths, Home Depot and Lowe’s, recently sold out to activists in ways that are the corporate equivalent of a dog’s putting his tail between his legs and slinking away from a bully. Home Depot announced that by the end of this year it will stop selling vinyl flooring that contains a class of chemicals called phthalates. It described the move as an effort to “continually challenge our suppliers to develop new, innovative options for our customers.” Baloney. What the company did was abandon both science and its customers under pressure from the activist group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which sponsors the “Mind the Store” campaign that has been strong-arming retailers to remove safe, useful, and affordable products from shelves.

LowesLogoW

Determined not to lag in the Stupid-Strategy Sweepstakes, Lowe’s announced not only that it will follow Home Depot’s lead on phthalates, but also that it will phase out the sale of products that contain neonicotinoid pesticides — which are widely used on turf and ornamental products as well as on corn and soybean seeds — supposedly because of their adverse effects on pollinators. “Lowe’s will include greater organic and non-neonic product selections, work with growers to eliminate the use of neonic pesticides on bee-attractive plants it sells and educate customers and employees through in-store and online resources,” the company said.

The people who need education are the ones at Lowe’s who decided to phase out “neonics” to protect bees. Contrary to oft-repeated claims, honeybee populations are not declining. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world’s honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960. In the U.S. and Europe, honeybee populations have been stable (or even rising slightly over the past couple of years) during the two decades since neonics were introduced, according to U.N. and USDA data. Statistics Canada reports an increase to 672,000 honeybee colonies in Canada, up from 501,000, over the same two decades.

When retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s capitulate to pressure groups rather than stand up for science, they actually harm consumers. Products won’t become any safer, while the replacements will often be of inferior quality, more expensive, or, most likely, both. The European experience with neonics illustrates the flaw in Lowe’s reasoning: The EU’s politically motivated ban on neonics, which began in 2013, has forced farmers to resort to older, more toxic, less effective pesticides — primarily pyrethroids, which had been largely phased out. Moreover, European farmers are now seeing a resurgence of insect predation, and insect infestations may lead to a 15 percent drop in this year’s European harvest of canola, the continent’s primary source of the vegetable oil used in food and as biodiesel.

HomeDepotLogoW

Home Depot and Lowe’s aren’t responding to “consumer demand” or being environmentally responsible; they are simply seeking the path of least resistance, knowing consumers are unlikely to protest much when their floors become marginally more expensive or somewhat less durable, or when they need to shift to alternative pest-control products. They just want to get the pesky activists off their backs.

Market forces actually work; if the replacement products that activists want us to use were better, cheaper, or safer, we’d use them without a pressure campaign directed at retailers. And if the original products were actually harming consumers, zealous regulators (and the plaintiffs’ bar) would have acted. When activists can’t get their way via science, regulation, or litigation, they resort to propagandistic tactics like this one.

History tells us that the approach works — for the activists. These campaigns for what have been dubbed “regrettable substitutions” — substitutions that have undesirable outcomes — have become standard operating procedure. Activists thump their chests, get their way, and go on to raise more money to fund the next campaign. Companies give in to avoid negative press, and cast their cowardice as corporate social responsibility.

It’s not as if consumers benefit when big retailers, under pressure, remove popular products. Consumers who, for whatever reason, want phthalate-free floors or BPA-free bottles already have choices. There are no shortages of so-called “green” products available — for a price. But a small group of vocal activists shouldn’t dictate the availability of safe products the rest of us want — simply because stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s want to avoid confrontation with groups that are in the business of confrontation.

This is part of a pattern. The “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families” bullies have a track record of spreading misleading information about the safety profile of chemicals in products that benefit consumers. Their baseless fear-mongering plays to the psychological phenomenon of “loss aversion,” in which people perceive the pain of loss more than they do the pleasure of gain. Their junk science has targeted a wide range of chemicals, including those found in cleaning supplies, furniture, children’s toys, food packaging, water bottles, and even commonly used food ingredients.

If the Home Depots and Lowe’s of the world continue to cave to these campaigns, consumers will be the losers. Activists will consign us to a life of more expensive products that aren’t safer or better. And inevitably, other activists will attack the replacement chemicals — the regrettable substitutions — for their risks, real or imaginary. There will be plenty of regrets for everyone, except the activists.

Friday
May082015

A Better Jobs Report, but Not Good Enough News for the American Economy

According to the new government report on unemployment, April would seem to have been a better month for jobs than last March.  That’s not saying much.

Despite the better-than-anticipated jobless numbers, the devil is always in the details.  Outside of the official jobless percentage, there is further information that doesn’t normally get reported on that makes today’s report less positive.  There’s also been a plethora of additional bad economic news of late makes that this one possibly nice note barely cause for celebration.

This is the message delivered by Project 21 member Derryck Green in his monthly “About Those Jobs Numbers” report:

April’s jobs numbers, much like other economic indicators that were recently released, show that it’s going to be difficult for the Obama Administration and its supporters to continue their glossy spin regarding the health of our economy.

You simply cannot spin these numbers.  You can make excuses for them, but you cannot spin them.

To begin with, first quarter GDP growth took a nosedive — plummeting to 0.2 percent.  That’s way down from the previous (fourth quarter of 2014) report of a 2.2 percent GDP growth spurt.  There are economists who also believe that this number will actually be revised to show negative growth once all the numbers are known.

There’s no spinning this disaster.  The economy did more than stall.  It contracted.  And it may yet be worse than we realize.

And it’s very easy to see why.  According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), labor costs rose five percent while worker productivity fell 1.9 percent last quarter.  This followed a drop of 2.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014.  This inverse relation of costs exceeding worker efficiency is a very bad sign for the economy.

Job creation was really no better.

Private payroll processor ADP estimated that only 169, 000 jobs were created in April, down from the revised number of 175,000 (and down from an initial 189,000 estimate) that were created in March.  The BLS, however, estimated higher — claiming that 223,000 jobs were created last month. 

These job creation numbers alone are enough to show the economy is in dire straits.  But there’s more bad news.

The official national unemployment rate did drop slightly to 5.4 percent.  Don’t forget the devil in the details here.  The U-6 jobless number, which includes those on the fringes of the economy, was 10.8 percent.  Once again, this is double the official rate.  And this is the rate many consider to be a more realistic report since it includes the officially unemployed as well as those who are underemployed or removed themselves entirely from the workforce.

There’s also a problem that the workforce participation rate rose only a tenth of a percent to 62.8 percent.  It has remained in this zone not seen since the Carter era for the past year.

The rate for blacks among the unemployed went down to 9.6 percent in April, while the jobless number for black teens rose to 27.5 percentOver 56 million women were out-of-work last month, bringing the unemployment rate for women up to 5.4 percent.  For Latinos, it rose to 6.9 percent.

No matter what these numbers are, New York Post writer John Crudele warns people not to believe them.  He claims that the Labor Department intentionally inflates job creation numbers, especially in the spring — even though they lack the data to back up their report.  He also rightly notes that the official national unemployment rate is inaccurate because it doesn’t take into consideration those who are long-term unemployed who’ve given up hope and stopped looking for work.  Those are the ones counted in the U-6 rate.  Only those people who are actively looking for work are counted in that official unemployment rate.

It was Crudele, by the way, who broke the story a year ago about how a Census Bureau staffer fraudulently collected data that contributed to curiously low unemployment rates around the 2012 election.

And, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, no matter how many jobs are created — because of the high rate of the underemployed and hidden unemployment — the economy is still 3-6 million jobs short of where it should be.

So, while the economy isn’t creating the jobs our nation needs, the federal government is taxing us as much as it can get its confiscatory hands on.  A record $1,477,901,000,000 in tax revenue was collected since just the start of Fiscal Year 2015, which started on Oct. 1, 2014 and ended April 14, 2015 (before tax day!), according to the Daily Treasury Statement.  Nevertheless, the government ran a deficit of almost $440 billion from October 2014 through March 2015.

It doesn’t stop there.  Other bad economic indicators include:

  • A study by the Congressional Research Service found that, as immigration surges, middle class incomes drop.  Remember that the next time you hear a politician extolling the benefits of an open-border system that will likely lead to amnesty;
  • A survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Greenwald and Associates found only 65 percent of workers polled have anything saved for retirement.  Only 28 percent say they have more than $1,000 saved for retirement, and more than a third said they haven’t saved any money at all for retirement.  It’s hard for some people to save money when they don’t have jobs, and those who do aren’t in much netter shape as they are often experiencing stagnant wages;
  • The homeownership rate — the number of homes owned compared to the overall number of homes — is slightly under 64 percent for the first quarter if 2015, according to the Census Bureau.  That’s the lowest number in 25 years.   It’s no wonder that the rental market is close to an all-time high;
  • Data from the BLS shows that last year, in 20 percent of American families (16,057,000 families out of 80,889,000 nationally), no one had a job;
  • According to consultant group Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., there were 61,582 job cuts in April — most of which were attributed to falling oil prices.  This number was up from the 36,594 job cuts in March — a 68 percent increase.  The April total was up 53 percent from April of 2014. 

This is a very ugly jobs picture for America, the lower official unemployment percentage notwithstanding.  As usual, the Obama Administration will probably have a number of excuses to blame on the economy’s poor showing, while supportive economists will likely act confident in projecting that the second quarter will see a rebound.  And how could it not rebound from 0.2 percent first quarter growth (possibly revised downward at a later date)?

But there’s no denying it — the blame falls squarely on Obama’s narrow shoulders. Sadly, there’s probably nothing that can be done to change course until Barack Obama leaves office.  And that day, in my opinion, cannot come soon enough.