Tag Archives: government

What the Federal Government Does

By James Kwak

Now is as good a time as any to remind people of who provides all those detailed projections of where Hurricane Sandy is going to hit and how strong it’s going to be: the federal government. No matter how you get your weather news—local TV or radio, The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, whatever—hurricane forecast information originally comes from the National Hurricane Center, which is part of the National Weather Service. The raw data come in part from the Hurricane Hunters, the pilots who fly planes into hurricanes, who are part of the Air Force Reserve and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The computer models that predict where hurricanes are going to strike are developed by the NHC.

In August 2011, Simon and I were on vacation with our families in Southern Florida as Hurricane Irene was approaching the East Coast. Simon had the idea of using government weather services as the example to lead off chapter 4 of White House Burning, “What Does the Federal Government Do?” I like this example because almost everyone agrees that the federal government should be engaged in disaster prevention, disaster relief, and even weather forecasting. In 2005, Rick Santorum proposed a bill that would have prevented the National Weather Service from providing weather forecasts to the public—but he insisted that the NWS should gather weather data and provide it to private companies so that they could make money off of it. (AccuWeather is based in Pennsylvania, Satorum’s state, by the way.)

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Small Government or Smallish-Sort-of-Mediumish-Nicer-Better Government

By James Kwak

The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is that it sets the stage for a debate about the role of government in society, between Romney and Ryan as champions of small government and Obama and Biden as supporters of big government. Indeed, that’s the thrust of the lead story in the Wall Street Journal this morning. And it’s pretty clear why Mitt Romney wants to have this debate.

First, the politics: The choice of Ryan should be slightly encouraging to Democrats for one reason—it confirms what the polls and Nate Silver have been saying for months: President Obama is winning, though not by much. One of Romney’s options was to simply run against the incumbent, pointing to the bad economy and making a bland case for himself as some kind of business guru. Apparently that wasn’t working, so he decided to double down on the Tea Party and the idea of radically reforming government—something that he’s been distinctly bad at throughout the election so far.

In the longer term, Democrats should be worried, because Romney and Ryan have the better debating position. Their position is simple and superficially compelling: Government is bad. (Cf. the DMV—it’s state, not federal, and the one in Massachusetts works very well, but whatever; BATF; EPA; IRS; whatever agency your audience happens to dislike. Compare to Apple as if all private sector businesses were like Apple.) Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes.

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When Did The Economist Become Comically Stupid?

By James Kwak

I recently got around to looking at my latest issue of The Economist.  Here’s the cover:

If you can’t make it out, that’s a huge Barack Obama, a small Mitt Romney, and the following caption: “Big government or small? America’s great debate.”

Now, how you could draw a contrast between two men who passed structurally identical health care plans—in which government regulation is used to incent people to buy insurance from private companies—baffled me. The caption, if anything, should have been “Small government or tiny?” So I peeked inside, where things get worse.

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Who’s a Freeloader?

By James Kwak

A year ago, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin published a paper based on their in-depth interviews of Tea Party activists. A longer presentation of their research was published as a book a few months ago, and I was reminded of it by historian Daniel Rodgers’s review in Democracy.*

Rodgers’s review is titled “‘Moocher Class’ Warfare,” picking up on one of their key findings: in general, Tea Party members like Medicare and Social Security, which they think they have earned through their work, but don’t like perceived freeloaders who live off of other peoples’ work. From the paper (p. 33):

The distinction between “workers” and “people who don’t work” is fundamental to Tea Party ideology on the ground. First and foremost, Tea Party activists identify themselves as productive citizens. . . . This self-definition is posed in opposition to nonworkers seen as profiting from government support for whom Tea Party adherents see themselves as footing the bill. . . . Tea Party anger is stoked by perceived redistributions—and the threat of future redistributions—from the deserving to the undeserving. Government programs are not intrinsically objectionable in the minds of Tea Party activists, and certainly not when they go to help them. Rather, government spending is seen as corrupted by creating benefits for people who do not contribute, who take handouts at the expense of hard-working Americans.

Let’s leave aside the self-serving nature of this distinction—I deserve my entitlement programs, but you don’t deserve yours. Does it even make any sense?

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Denial or Principle?

By James Kwak

I wanted to make a belated return to Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on reluctant safety net beneficiaries.  Earlier this week I argued that their framing of an expanding safety net that has spread from the poor to the middle class is wrong, but otherwise the themes they discuss are very important.

Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security.

I don’t think Gulbranson is a hypocrite at all. I don’t think taking a benefit you don’t think should exist makes you a hypocrite, just like I don’t think Warren Buffett should voluntarily pay higher taxes. I think his position is one part magical thinking and one part principle.

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Money

By James Kwak

I was browsing for Christmas presents and came across a brilliant xkcd cartoon, “Money.” (Click on it to zoom in.) It includes all sorts of fun bits like this (this is just a small excerpt; you can buy a poster-size version of the whole thing):

But this was actually my favorite part:

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The Private Insurance Market

By James Kwak

I’m currently in the process of buying long-term care insurance—you know, so my daughter won’t have to take care of me when I’m old. I have a good agent who knows all about the market and has answered every question I’ve had. I understand personal finance, opportunity costs, discount rates, and inflation. I know my way around a spreadsheet (one benefit of my years at McKinsey). But I find it’s still hard to figure out what to do.

A bit of background: Long-term care insurance pays for your stay in a nursing home if you become unable to take care of yourself. Depending on the policy, it may also pay for care you receive at home instead of going into a facility. According to the insurer I’m considering, the median annual cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home in my state is $145,000, and the average stay is something like three years. To put that in perspective, in 2009, the median net worth of families where the head of household was of age 65–74 was $205,000 (including real estate assets).

Long term care is not covered by Medicare, except for a short period after each acute event. It is covered by Medicaid, but to be eligible for coverage you have to exhaust all of your assets. Despite that onerous requirement, Medicaid currently covers 40 percent of all spending on long-term care. (2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook, p. 39.) The Affordable Care Act of 2010 included what is known as the CLASS Act, which would have allowed anyone to buy long-term care insurance, with an average benefit of $75 per day, for a monthly premium of $123. The CLASS Act, however, has been suspended because the administration could not certify that it would be deficit-neutral over the long term. So the bottom line is: until you use up all your money, you’re on your own.

Still, shouldn’t you be able to buy protection in the private insurance market? The short answer is: not really.

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