Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Just the facts, please

Because I'm tired of reading everyone argue on Facebook about things that they don't know about, I decided to start posting some facts that you might want to know before you get into arguments with very little editorializing from me. This first edition is about the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Keystone edition

Canada provides us with more than a third of our oil:  According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, we imported 101 million barrels of oil from Canada in May of 2014.  We receive more oil from Canada, currently, than any other country in the world.  In fact, all of the OPEC countries barely provide us with more barrels than Canada does by itself.  The OPEC countries provided us with 102 million barrels in May of 2014.  True fact, we get more oil from Canada than we do from the entire Persian Gulf (53 million).  We get nearly three times as many barrels of oil from Canada as we do Saudi Arabia (38 million, although Canada typically only gives us twice as much as we get from Saudi Arabia).  Guess what? 

There’s room for more: According to a study written by EnSys Energy & systems Inc. for the U.S. State Department, the current pipelines in existence from Canada to the United States have the capacity to bring in more than 1 million barrels per day.  The Keystone XL Pipeline is projected to bring in 830,000 barrels of oil per day. 

But the jobz1!: The U.S. State Department says that 3,900 would be employed directly in building the pipeline if it lasts one year and 1,950 if the construction lasts two ears.  TransCanada (who is proposing the pipeline) says that 9,000 construction jobs would be directly. With any economic analysis for jobs, there are indirect jobs.  The U.S. State Department says that there will be 42,100 jobs indirectly created.   Here’s TransCanada accepting that job number claim.   TransCanada also states that the majority of the jobs created will be during the construction process.   The State Department also notes that there will be about 50 permanent jobs.  Some people are claiming it will create over a 100,000 jobs but that was based off of the original Canada-to-Texas project that has already been completed and was running beginning January of this years.
It’s not safe: An average of 97,376 barrels of petroleum and hazardous liquids are spilled each year in pipeline incidents over the last decade.    Additionally, these spills kill about two lives per year and exceed $250 million in property damage each year. TransCanada has promised to make the pipeline the safest pipeline ever constructed.  So, there’s that.

Gas prices won’t be affected:  Even TransCanada understands this, they do not claim that gas prices will be affected on their website.  The Keystone Pipeline will have little impact on gas prices according to the U.S. State department  and many experts.  Curt Launer, managing director at Deutsche Bank told CNBC that “there’s no real reason to suspect that direct economic benefits shared by Transcanada, Canadian oil producers and U.S. oil refiners would be passed on to individual gasoline consumers.”

But teh oil will go to CHINA!!!!!1!1!!1!1!!!: While Republican lawmakers have been saying that if Keystone XL is not built, the oil from the tar sands of Alberta will go to China or any number of other countries.  Former Massachusetts Congressman (now Senator of Massachusetts) Ed Markey was critical of these statements because the oil going through Keystone XL is going to Port Arthur, Texas, a foreign trade zone that allows tax-free transactions according to Markey.  At a Congressional hearing, Markey asked the president of TransCanada if he would agree to keep the oil and other products that go through Keystone in the United States, the President of TransCanada said no.  Markey proposed an amendment to the Northern Route Approval Act which would keep oil and other refined products going through the Keystone Pipeline in the United States.  To be fair, the Energy Department produced an analysis noting that very little of the oil would be exported.  Republicans in the House of Representatives do not believe it is an issue anyway.  Republican Congressman Ed Whitfield (KY-1) said to Politico, “even if [we do export oil from the pipeline], why is that a problem?  We’ve got a big huge trade deficit and we need to try to reduce that trade deficit and this is one way to do it.” 

Republican John Shimkus of Illinois said, “even if you accept [Markey’s] premise, more oil going on the world market is a good thing.”  It is hard to reconcile the opinions of Republican lawmakers with those who are commenting on the law.  Many conservative pundits have fearmongered about the tar sand oil being exported around the world instead of being in the United States.  It’s important to note that Markey’s amendment failed in committee.  There is not language in the bill that guarantees that the oil transported through Keystone will stay in the United States.  

Friday, August 8, 2014

The popularity of the Affordable Care Act

We keep hearing the argument at the end of every news program about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that the ACA remains unpopular with a majority of Americans.  This fuels the arguments on the political right that repealing the law is going with the “will of the people.”  In March of 2014, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that 59% of Americans want Congress to keep the law and work to improve the law or keep it as is, while only 29% of Americans want Congress to either repeal the law or repeal the law and replace with a Republican alternative.  Another poll, earlier in March, found that 71% of Americans wanting to keep the law while 28% said they wanted to eliminate it.  While this poll came out in March, the favorability of the law (38/46) is almost the same as what was found in June (39/45). 

So, what aspects of the law are unpopular?   The Kaiser Poll found the following percentages of people favorable to each aspect of the law:

Total Public
Extension of dependent coverage
Close Medicare “doughnut hole”
Subsidy assistance to individuals
Eliminate out of pocket expenses for preventive services
Medicaid Expansion
Guaranteed issue*
Medical loss ratio**
Increase Medicare payroll tax on upper income earners
Individual mandate/penalty

*- prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on health status, or in other words, no denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions
**- requires insurance companies to give their customers a rebate if they spend too little money on services and too much on administration and profits

Looked at it this way, it’s pretty easy to see where the unpopularity of the law comes from.  The unpopularity of the law stems from the unpopularity of the individual mandate and the penalty.  As Kaiser points out, the unpopularity of the law also comes from another source.  The unpopularity of the law also stems from people being ignorant of the law and what it includes.  While nearly 80% of respondents know that the individual mandate is included in the law, no other provision is as widely known.  71% of respondents knew that extension of dependent coverage was included in the law.  63% knew that subsidies would be provided to individuals.  60% knew about Medicaid expansion in the law.   Somehow only 54% knew that the prohibition on denying individuals on pre-existing conditions were included.  Fewer than 50% of respondents knew about closing the Medicare doughnut hole (40%), eliminating out-of-pocket expenses for preventive services (43%), the medical loss ratio (44%), and the increase on Medicare payroll tax (46%).   Meanwhile, 46% of respondents thought that the ACA would allow undocumented immigrants to receive financial help from the government to buy health insurance and only a third answered correctly that it does not.  Additionally, over a third of respondents believe the law establishes a panel to make decisions on end-of-life care (the so-called death panels), nearly a quarter of respondents were unsure. 

It’s a little odd that the unpopularity of the individual mandate could doom the law so much.  The reasons for opposing the law were quite diverse, Kaiser found, two of the most popular reasons for opposing the law were government overreach and opposition to the individual mandate.  17% of those who oppose the law cited the opposition of the individual mandate for their reason to oppose the law while 10% of those who oppose the law stated that their reason was government overreach.  Theoretically, those opposing the individual mandate would want to keep the more popular reforms but get rid of the individual mandate.  Of course, the individual mandate makes the popular reforms possible and helps deal with the number one reason for opposition to the law.  23% of those opposed to the law stated their reason for opposition was cost concerns.

In order to end the denial of health care coverage for those with pre-existing conditions and to keep the premiums in line with those without pre-existing conditions, insurance companies needed to increase their pool of applicants.   Another reform not mentioned above, the end of incision, or caps on insurance spending were predicated on the individual mandate being implemented.  If we just ended the pre-existing discrimination and individual caps, those enrolling in health insurance would be older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions.  Healthier people, meanwhile, could now afford to wait until they desperately needed coverage to sign up.  To cover for this, insurance companies would raise premiums.  As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes the resulting premium spike would further discourage healthier people from getting health care coverage.  This would raise premiums even higher. 

So, to avoid all of this, the ACA has an individual mandate.  Encouraging healthy people to sign up for the health care coverage will ensure that the mix of people signing up for health insurance is a mix of healthy and non-healthy and keeping costs down.  Jonathan Gruber estimated that the removing the mandate would raise the individual premiums in the health insurance exchanges by 40 percent.  To balance the cost of the individual mandate to those who don’t make much money, there was the expansion of Medicaid (the mandatory portion was struck down by the Supreme Court) and subsidies for those who did not qualify for Medicaid for those making up to $88,000 for a family of four who don’t receive coverage through their employer.  Without the individual mandate, the subsidies probably disappear, the expansion of Medicaid is unlikely to happen, premiums would increase by 40%, and most of the popular reforms would not stick. 

Would talking about the law and educating people make the law more popular?  I remain skeptical.  One major fallacy that I often see in political circles is the idea that if we just talk about the issues, argue in a convincing way, frame the issues in a different way, etc. will convince large swaths of people to whatever your political persuasion is.  I blame Aaron Sorkin.  President Barack Obama, repeatedly on the campaign trail, brought up closing the Medicare doughnut hole, ending the denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and ending out-of-pocket expenses for preventive services.  If people aren’t aware that they were part of the law, then they weren’t paying attention.  Conversely, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators brought up the lie that the ACA was the biggest tax increase ever but many Americans could not name that the Medicare payroll tax was increasing on higher income earners.   I’m not really sure what can be done if your goal is to make the law more popular.  Perhaps as more people are acquainted with the law, they will change their views.  Of course, many people believe Obama increased their taxes when just the opposite happened, so you never know.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Birthright Citizenship Act

The 14th Amendment of the Constitution gives U.S. citizenship to anyone born in the United States with some exceptions.  Republican Steve King, of Iowa's 4th Congressional District introduced a bill in January of 2013 is trying to make those exceptions bigger by explicitly changing the wording for the Immigration and Nationality Act to ensure that the citizenship is only passed on if one of the parents is a U.S. citizen or national, lawful permanent resident, or an alien in active service of the United States military.  He was pretty candid about why he wrote the bill, saying in a statement when he introduced the bill, "the current practice of extending citizenship to hundreds of thousands of 'anchor babies' must end because it creates a magnet for illegal immigration."

This idea used to be more mainstream.  Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News in 2010 that he would push for a constitutional amendment to remove the birthright citizenship from children of immigrants.  In 2011, America's greatest defender of freedom Rand Paul joined with Senator David Vitter to submit a Congressional resolution to amend the Constitution to take away the birthright citizenship from children of undocumented immigrants.  In 2007, now Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal introduced a similar bill attracting 104 co-sponsors and received 95 when he re-introduced the bill in 2009.   The fear is that thousands of undocumented immigrants are coming to America just to have their babies so they can have U.S. citizenship.  Well Louie Gohmert's fear is that these anchor babies will be used by Al Qaeda to attack America with U.S. passports.  That's an irrational fear.

Without getting even too much in the legalese, you should see an almost immediate problem.  In order for the children to receive U.S. citizenship, their parents have to prove that they are either citizens or otherwise qualified to confer their citizenship on their children.  Hmmm. I wonder who is going to get questioned first.  The American Civil Liberties Union, being the masters they are of the slippery slope, argue that because of the increased scrutiny or fear of their children not receiving the citizenship, many undocumented immigrants will simply avoid delivering children in hospitals.  This may be slightly irrational, as well.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank (I believe this is the first time I've ever quoted a Cato paper) warns of the impact of enacting a similar plan to the Birthright Citizenship Act.  The authors of the paper argue that the birthright citizenship is arguably one of the reasons America was able to become the superpower it is today.  It also warns that while some children of undocumented immigrants are bad apples, there is no evidence to suggest that children born of undocumented immigrants or of parents with temporary status are better or any worse than children born of citizens, nationals, or permanent residents. The Cato Institute says that by changing the birthright citizenship clause, we would be essentially quadrupling the number of DREAMers that are in America. These now non-citizens will be ineligible for jobs, political office, health insurance, pay taxes, etc. Instead of moving people out of the shadows, this would greatly increase the numbers of those in the shadows.

The main reason to stop children from automatically gaining citizenship is to stop or slow the amount of undocumented immigrants coming into the country.  The Cato Institute notes that other countries who have changed their birthright citizenship laws did not see evidence of unauthorized migration occurring.  In most cases, there is a substantial increases of generations of undocumented immigrants.

The ACLU and the Cato Institute both agree that the Birthright Citizenship Act is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist.  For that matter, the scaremongering of anchor babies should probably subsist, as well.  Most factors for encouraging migrants to immigrate to a country are economic factors.  Where there are jobs and economic opportunities, people will migrate.  The federal government still regularly deports foreign parents of citizen children forcing parents to take their children with them or leaving them here.

The Birthright Citizenship Act is the antithesis of the values prescribed in the United States Constitution.   As Joanne Lin of the ACLU said while asking Congress to reject a similar law,"in America rights are based on fairness and equal treatment under the law, not who your parents are, or what they did or whether today's politicians approve of them."  Luckily, politicians disapproving of them seem to be growing smaller. King has only 35 co-sponsors to his bill, all of whom are Republicans. The Senate companion bill introduced by David Vitter has two co-sponsors, both of whom are Republicans.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Go, Chuck, go!

A Public Policy Polling poll done for Chuck Hassebrook for Governor found that the Nebraska gubernatorial election is a lot closer than what we would expect. Republican nominee Pete Ricketts leads the Democratic nominee 42-38, with 8% showing support for the Libertarian candidate Mark Elworth.  Like much of the country, Nebraska has seen itself become hyperpartisan over recent years.  The state has become a reliable Republican state in nearly all elections in recent years.  The last two governors of Nebraska have been Republicans, although the state alternated between Republican and Democratic governors for the previous ten.  The last time a Democratic candidate won either the statewide election for Senate or Governor was 2006, with the conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson.  It would seem that a Republican would easily win election in the new hyperpartisan climate in Nebraska.  Why is Pete Ricketts struggling or, perhaps more accurately, why is Chuck Hassebrook succeeding?

Polling error

While the June poll, linked above, indicates a four point race, the Cook Political Report lists the race as solid Republican.  48% of registered voters in Nebraska identify as Republicans while 31% are members of the Democratic Party.  If I was a member of the Ricketts campaign, I'd be curious if Public Policy Polling oversampled Democratic voters in Nebraska.  In fact, that's similar to what  team Ricketts said to the Lincoln Journal Star.  Ricketts's campaign manager was quoted as saying,"we're not surprised a Democrat polling firm would yield positive results for the campaign asking for it."

Prior to the Public Policy Polling poll, there was a poll that was put out by Rasmussen polling on the race.  Rasmussen frequently favors Republicans in their polls for whatever reason; this poll was no different.  Rasmussen polling gave Ricketts a 7 point lead in the race, showing the race at 47-40.  Nate Silver found that Rasmussen had a bias of 3.7 points towards Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, it's safe to assume that the bias is still somewhat there during polling for the mid-terms.  (Public Policy Polling was found to have a bias of 1.6 points towards Romney).

The Ricketts campaign is right to question the integrity of internal polls that are made available to the media as they often favor the campaign releasing them.  This is part of the reason why polling is important.  The aggregation of polls will show what's really there; properly adjusting outlier polls is also important. With the only polls from the state showing essentially the same thing, we can probably conclude that Hassebrook is within a few points of Ricketts.

The Primary difference

According to the poll, Ricketts is not facing too great of party unity.  64% of Republicans are committed to Ricketts at this point.  This shouldn't be too surprising after a competitive Republican primary that saw Ricketts barely edge Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning based on generous support from the Omaha metropolitan area.  Ricketts won the Republican primary by about 2,000 votes, earning 26.5% of the votes.  He won Douglas County by over 4,000 votes and Sarpy County by over 1,000 votes.  Rural voters and voters outside of the Omaha metro area were more likely to vote for Jon Bruning.

In 2006, Ricketts ran for Senator of Nebraska against the incumbent Ben Nelson.  After spending over $10 million of his own money for the election, he received only 36% of the vote.  This was the worst showing in the state for a Republican since 1970.  While he did somewhat better than he did in the primary this year, in Western Nebraska, it was an embarrassing showing for someone who spent this much.  He blamed this on the perception of Nebraska voters that he was trying to buy their votes.

Political scientists who have looked at Nebraska have noticed something odd.  It's not as much of a microcosm of politics as the rest of the country.  Throughout the country, Super PACs and outside spending groups have influenced the elections while trying to say that they represent the best interests of the given district.  Nebraskans generally do not like outsiders coming in to try and take over their political campaigns.  In the 2012 Republican primary for Senate, Don Stenberg was endorsed by powerful PACs and Super PACs to receive the nomination but he fell short.  Deb Fischer won the nomination and ran the entire general election on the idea that her challenger, Bob Kerrey, was an outsider and not a true Nebraskan.  The issue seemed to be pretty effective.  While Ben Sasse bucked the trend of national endorsements being a failure in Nebraska, his endorsement sheet was full of local and Nebraska politicians.  Ricketts's most notable endorsement from the state of Nebraska is former Governor Kay Orr's endorsement or perhaps Lee Terry, the member of Congress representing the Omaha metro-area. The Hassebrook campaign understands this weariness of the voters, at a recent campaign stop saying, "[Ricketts's] dad wants to buy him a job at the top of this state."  In an interview with Bloomberg, Hassebrook was also quoted as saying "voters see those [large-money] ads as an implication of who you are and that you're trying to buy the race."

The numbers game

In 2010, out of the over 300,000 registered voters in Douglas County, 125,000 voters were Democratic Party members and 121,000 were registered with the Republican Party.  2010 was a wave year for the Republican Party.  In elections across the nation, unpopular Republican candidates were able to win elections based on the massive unpopularity of the President, Barack Obama and the looming specter of horror, Obamacare.  This was no different in Nebraska.

Lee Terry, the Representative of Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, had barely won re-election in 2008, winning 52-48 over Jim Esch (swoon) and would barely win re-election in 2012 over John Ewing 51-49, somehow managed to beat the pro-life Democrat challenger Tom White 61-39.  Many pundits will tell you that the mid-term elections are, by nature, more conservative than the presidential years because Republicans show up to the polls.  This combined with the massive unpopularity of the sitting President and a law that galvanized the public led to a perfect storm in 2010.

Dave Heineman who was massively popular in Nebraska ran for re-election in 2010.  He trounced the Democratic nominee, winning 74% of the vote and every county in the state.  In Douglas County, which is represented by Lee Terry, Heineman won 67% of the vote, a full 7 points below the rest of the state.  In Lancaster County, the other metropolitan area (where Lincoln is), Heineman won 61% of the vote or 13% below the rest of the state.

In a perfect storm year for the Republican candidate, a very popular incumbent was polling well below the rest of the state in its conservativeness on election day in the two most popular areas of the state.  As mentioned previously, Ricketts's biggest support comes from Douglas County.  This is an area of the state where a Democratic candidate will do appreciably better than the rest of the state.  Lancaster County was not a hotbed of support for Ricketts in the Republican primary, as he finished in third garnering 20.66% of the vote.

Younger voters, which usually are more liberal voters, tend to have a higher turnout in more competitive elections.  The idea is that younger people are convinced that their votes actually matter.  The cause and effect of this seems muddled.  The political science literature indicates that those people who voted in competitive elections as their first election or close to their first election are more likely to vote in the future.  For those in my age group, those are people who voted for the first time in 2008, 2010, and/or 2012.  Two of those elections, at least at the Congressional level for Douglas County, were two of the most competitive elections in the country.  Theoretically, if the political science literature is correct (which it almost always is) this will give a small boost to Hassebrook.

The rural areas of Nebraska is where the biggest support for the Republican Party comes from.  Hassebrook is from a rural community and his family has been farming there for over a century.  In addition, he served on the Nebraska Rural Development Comission, US Department of Agriculture National Commission on Small Farms, and many other boards to help him with the rural vote.  Ricketts, meanwhile, could not even garner plurality support in the rural counties of Nebraska in a Republican primary.  If Nebraska is going to elect a Democratic governor at some point in the near future, it will be this year.

So, you're saying there's a chance

Near the end of 2013, Wendy Davis was mentioned as  a viable candidate for Governor in Texas.  She, of course, is a Democrat running in a very red, conservative state.  The idea was that Davis could help shift Texas blue.  Nate Cohn, now of The New York Times, scoffed at the idea and then pointed to the number on primary day in Texas when Greg Abbott secured the Republican nomination.  His point was that there are just too many Republicans in Texas for Wendy Davis to be able to win.

Nebraska's registered voter population is just over 1.2 million.  Nearly a quarter of these voters are in the Douglas County area.  This area, while being Ricketts's biggest base of support, also tends to be among the most liberal areas of the state.  If the Hassebrook campaign and by extension the Democratic Party can help get out the vote, Hassebrook has a realistic shot.  A Democratic candidate needs to be able to make inroads to the rural population of Nebraska to be able to win the election.  Ricketts has left the door open with his underwhelming performance in the Republican Party and his inability to connect with the voters, so far.  This leaves a golden opportunity for Hassebrook to be able to steal votes away from the traditional Republican base.

There's a lot of if's in there. Crazier things have happened. A competitive gubernatorial election in Nebraska probably seemed insane to many, even just last year.  This is me hedging my bets at the end.  I think Hassebrook has a real shot.  In a podcast that was recorded but never posted in January (because of my technical inabilities to do anything) I predicted Hassebrook to win. This will sound either incredibly smart or incredibly foolish in November.  I am sticking with it.