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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

As Talks Open, Democrats Show Signs of Division

From The New York Times:

President Obama and congressional Democrats, astonishingly united through recent fiscal fights with Republicans, were showing some divisions as budget negotiations opened on Wednesday between the House and Senate to avert another crisis in coming months.

Democrats in Congress insist that Republicans, to prevent billions of dollars in scheduled cuts to military programs next year, must agree instead to raise new revenues by closing some tax breaks. But the White House, eager to end the arbitrary cuts known as sequestration for both military and domestic programs, has not linked taxes and Pentagon spending for a short-term budget deal covering a year or two.

By all accounts Mr. Obama still wants Democrats and Republicans to try yet again for a sweeping, long-term budget accord. Such a grand bargain would provide immediate spending for infrastructure, education and other public investments while reducing future annual deficits by trillions of dollars through both tax increases and reductions in the fast-growing entitlement programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Time and opportunity for such legacy-making action is running out in his presidency, even as more baby boomers retire and begin drawing benefits.
But Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate have joined with their Republican counterparts to rule out any long-term deal — Republicans because they refuse to consider tax changes and Democrats because they will not consider changing the popular benefit programs without Republican concessions on revenues — especially with midterm congressional elections approaching in 2014. Mr. Obama is deferring to the Democratic leaders, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California.
Among the potential areas for alternative savings are farm subsidies and federal pensions. But Democrats in Congress do not want to set a precedent that program cuts alone will substitute for sequester savings in future years; they want some revenue increases as well, especially as Republicans demand relief for military spending.

Voters’ Anger Over Shutdown Is Inspiring Democrats to Run

From The New York Times:

[N]ationally, the Democratic Party is enjoying something of a boomlet in newly declared candidacies for the House. Since Oct. 1, five candidates [in Nebraska] have lined up to contest Republican-held seats, with at least four more in the wings, Democratic officials say. Almost all say they are driven to run — ostensibly, at least — by disgust over the shutdown, first espoused by Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, and embraced by Tea Party Republicans in the House and, eventually, most others as well.

Nonetheless, most of the Republicans viewed as most vulnerable are moderates, not those who pushed for the shutdown.
But political analysts say he and other Republicans still may have two things going for them: One, next year’s elections are midterms, when the party in the White House usually suffers losses and voter turnout is reliably low. And two: Even the experts cannot predict how angry voters will express themselves.
“This is a screwed-up situation,” said Tom King, a consultant working for the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in next week’s election. “When this happens, ‘throw the bums out’ either becomes ‘throw everyone out,’ or ‘throw one party out.’ ”
Which is more likely? “Look at the results two weeks from now,” he said, referring to Election Day, “and you’ll get a better idea of how this is breaking.” 

Retailers Brace for Reduction in Food Stamps - Enrollment in food-stamp benefits surged during the recession and in its wake, increasing by 70% from 2007 to 2011 before leveling off.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Enrollment in food-stamp benefits surged during the recession and in its wake, increasing by 70% from 2007 to 2011 before leveling off. The government's stimulus program increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits across the board by 13.6% in 2009.

As that temporary increase expires on Friday, benefits for a family of four receiving a maximum allotment will drop by 5.4%, the equivalent of about $36 a month, or $420 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Retailers and food companies including Wal-Mart have spent millions over the past couple of years lobbying lawmakers over nutritional assistance, according to federal records. The current Congress, however, appears inclined to implement even deeper cuts as lawmakers in Washington resume negotiations this week over a new U.S. farm bill.

The House in September passed a bill curtailing spending on food stamps by 5%, or about $40 billion over a decade. The Senate has called for a smaller cut of about $4 billion.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ousted General in Egypt Is Back, as Islamists’ Foe - The the leading advocate of the lethal crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, in a drive to eviscerate the movement.

From The New York Times:

A year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the man responsible for rooting out government corruption, Gen. Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy, faced a very public barrage of allegations that he had deliberately covered up years of cronyism and self-dealing.

President Mohamed Morsi promptly fired the general, prosecutors opened an investigation, the news filled the papers and his career appeared to end in disgrace.

But now the general is back, and more powerful than ever. His protégé and friend, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, ousted Mr. Morsi about four months ago, and virtually the first move by the new government was to rehabilitate General Tohamy and place him in charge of the general intelligence service, one of the most powerful positions in Egypt.

Western diplomats and Egyptians close to the government say General Tohamy has emerged as the leading advocate of the lethal crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, in a drive to eviscerate the movement.

And it continues: Some Consumers Face Jump in Prices as Old Policies End - Millions of Americans currently covered on individual plans are having their policies terminated by insurers starting next year due to changes prompted by the new health law.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Chantel Koerwitz learned from Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Nebraska last month that the health-insurance plan she and her two young children have would be terminated at the end of this year because it doesn't comply with requirements laid out by the new federal health law.

Ms. Koerwitz's high-deductible plan fit the family budget, at $290.97 a month. Now, she said, she faces a 57% bump, to $456.21 a month, for a Blue Cross plan that has a similar deductible but covers more benefits—some of which, like substance-abuse therapy, she said she doesn't need. Choosing that plan, she said, would require her to pare back nonessentials: her kids' extracurricular activities, vacation travel and cable television.

Complicating Ms. Koerwitz's dilemma is the fact that the 39-year-old stay-at-home mother can't access the website of the federally run health-insurance marketplace, where she could shop for a more affordable plan. "It's not fun. I'm waiting. I'm getting angrier by the day," she said.

Ms. Koerwitz is one of millions of holders of individual health policies who are learning they will have to change coverage by the end of the year to comply with the new law. Under the health law, insurers must cover a broader array of benefits that they previously didn't, such as maternity care, annual physicals and mental-health care. Out-of-pocket costs for consumers top out at $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families, eliminating the option of choosing high deductibles in return for cheaper premiums.

Many consumers, particularly those who are healthy and don't qualify for government subsidies, will have to pay more—sometimes double their current rates. Peter Fritzinger, a retired 55-year-old business executive who lives in Denver with his wife and three children, got notice in late August that his Humana Inc. plan would be canceled at the end of the year.

At $585 a month, the plan had struck Mr. Fritzinger as a deal, despite a $22,500 deductible for the family. The new plan Humana is offering, which complies with the health law, costs $1,146 a month, according to a letter from the insurer. The plan covers a broader range of benefits and the costs of any covered medical services beyond $12,600 for the family.

"That's just a staggering increase, and I don't think most families can afford that," Mr. Fritzinger said.

But other Americans may pay a lot less. The oldest and least healthy insurance customers, long charged much higher rates than their healthy counterparts, could see in some cases significant decreases, insurers and policy experts say.

"It depends a lot on whether they were healthy and their age," said Dan Mendelson, chief executive of Avalere Health, an industry consultancy. "Fifty-year-old heart-failure patients are ecstatic because their premiums are going down in this environment."

Insurers issued the first wave of cancellation letters in recent weeks, and some consumers have responded with anger and frustration. Kaiser Permanente, a California managed-care provider, has informed 160,000 members—about half its individual customers in the state—that their plans won't be continued after Dec. 31, said Chris Stenrud, a spokesman. It began notifying customers this summer and is automatically enrolling them in new plans, unless they choose different coverage.

Around 30,000 Kaiser members who were previously covered by a plan with limited benefits will see significant premium increases, he said. The offerings must cover a range of benefits to be compliant with the health law, such as maternity care, surgeries and mental health—things not covered by all current plans.

Blue Shield of California is notifying 119,000 members that their plans will be canceled this year, said spokesman Steve Shivinsky. Those members will be transferred to new plans. Another 90,000 members with individual policies will have the option of keeping their coverage, he said. Those grandfathered plans will eventually be phased out, too, he said.

About two-thirds of Blue Shield customers will see an increase in premiums, Mr. Shivinsky said, ranging from minor to substantial price hikes. The remaining third—mostly people who have historically paid more due to age or health factors—will see premiums decrease, he said.

Rather than pay for the new Humana plan or shop on the insurance exchange, Mr. Fritzinger has chosen a third option: Like some insurance customers, he'll renew his current plan in December, before the health-law provisions go into effect—at the same rate. The health law's changes—and cancellations for some plans—generally go into effect when plans renew after Jan. 1. At the end of next year, Humana told him, he'll have to subscribe to a new plan that complies with the law's requirements.

Giving consumers the ability to re-up or shop for coverage on the exchanges "enables our members to select the option that works best for them," a Humana spokesman said.

Also see The New York Times:

The rising concern about canceled health coverage has provided Republicans a more tangible line of attack on the law and its most appealing promise for the vast majority of Americans who have insurance: that it would lower their costs, or at least hold them harmless. Baffled consumers are producing real letters from insurance companies that directly contradict Mr. Obama’s oft-repeated reassurances that if people like the insurance they have, they will be able to keep it.

Democrats facing tough election campaigns next year are growing increasingly nervous. Senator

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Canceled Policies Heat Up Health Fight - Concerns Extend Beyond Troubled Insurance Website; While insurers may keep selling current customers existing plans that date to March 2010 or before, many are citing the law as they end old policies.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Problems surrounding the launch of the federal health-care law broadened Tuesday, as concerns that thousands of Americans are getting insurance-cancellation notices bubbled over at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Highlighting a growing number of such notices, Republicans trained their fire on President Barack Obama, who said in 2009, "If you like your health-care plan, you will be able to keep your health-care plan. Period." The president repeated that message numerous times before the law passed in 2010, and some Democrats said he had left them ill-prepared to respond to the latest charge, which follows the botched launch of the website intended to help Americans sign up for new policies.

At issue are insurance-plan changes affecting millions of Americans who buy coverage through the individual market because they can't get it from an employer or government program. Under the law, most new plans aimed at individuals must offer more-generous benefits—and often come at a higher price.

While insurers may keep selling current customers existing plans that date to March 2010 or before, many are citing the law as they end old policies.

The issue, while long known in health-policy circles, pushed its way to the national stage as more people around the country received cancellation notices. Some found they would have to pay more for coverage because newly available plans cover maternity care and don't cap payouts—benefits required under the new law that customers previously could have chosen to go without.

Also, the law says plans can no longer charge sicker people more, meaning those in good health may lose a pricing edge, while others may see their costs fall significantly.

The cancellation notices carried an additional sting because of the technology problems at the HealthCare.gov portal, which officials had been counting on to showcase new insurance options and federal subsidies. People who received cancellation notices may be unable to shop for new policies online and figure out whether they are eligible for subsidies. The federal site serves consumers in 36 states that declined to run their own health-insurance exchanges.

The twin issues of plan cancellations and the technology problems are expected to dominate a House hearing Wednesday at which Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify for the first time since the website was launched Oct. 1.

The White House played down the significance of the cancellation issue by saying it affected only a sliver of Americans who already buy insurance on their own. It argued that the Affordable Care Act ultimately would improve coverage for millions who previously were blocked from the market because of illnesses or who received only skimpy benefits.

"What we're talking about here is the 5% in the country who currently purchase insurance on the individual market, and that market has been like the Wild West. It has been underregulated," spokesman Jay Carney said. He said the existing plans are "almost by definition providing less than minimal benefits" and may "charge you twice as much if you're a woman."

Earlier this month, Tom Luebchow, a 54-year-old small-business owner in Winston-Salem, N.C., received a letter from Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina telling him his individual health plan would be canceled and that the cost of coverage for his family would more than triple—to over $1,000 a month. He said that after the initial shock wore off, it was replaced by anger because he had to pay for benefits like pediatric eye exams that he would never use.

Mr. Luebchow said he won't qualify for subsidies for himself, his wife and 20-year-old son. "At 54 years old, I'm working my butt off and making a decent living, but now I feel penalized since I make too much money. Now you tell me the affordable part of that," he said.

As many as 10 million consumers are expected to have their health plans terminated by their insurers effective Jan. 1 or after, insurance experts said, meaning that millions of cancellation letters are likely to go out during the fall enrollment season.

About 15.4 million people, or about 5% of the U.S. population, are covered under individual health plans, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Gary Claxton, an expert on private insurance at the foundation, said the cancellation letters shouldn't have been a surprise, since the health law made clear that certain existing policies wouldn't meet the new standards.

Some policyholders expected to be grandfathered into older plans. But insurers said they canceled some plans out of concern they could become less profitable as membership declines.

The issue emerged as topic A for Republican critics of the law on Tuesday, outweighing the website troubles.

"The president likes to say that Obamacare is about more than just a website," said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "He's absolutely right. And that's why fixing a website won't solve the larger problem here. The larger problem is Obamacare itself."

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) told reporters that Democrats and Mr. Obama should have been "more precise" when they said if Americans liked their health insurance, they could keep it.

"We knew there would be some policies that would not qualify and therefore people would be required to get more extensive coverage, and of course that coverage is available in the exchange," Mr. Hoyer said.

The administration is trying to refocus attention on potential gains from the law by sending the president to Massachusetts on Wednesday, where he is expected to point to the positive effects of that state's health overhaul, which served as a model for the federal law.

At the hearing Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Ms. Sebelius is expected to say the problems with the insurance exchanges are "not acceptable," according to an advance text, but to defend herself against calls that she resign. Her spokeswoman, Joanne Peters, said the secretary "is committed to getting this right."

Republicans on the committee are expected to talk about a bill they introduced Monday that would authorize insurance carriers to continue offering all plans currently sold on the individual market

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony from one of Ms. Sebelius's subordinates, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, who apologized for the website's troubles and said they were being gradually fixed.

Some fixes have been short-lived. The data center supporting the troubled HealthCare.gov site went down again Tuesday, a day after connectivity was restored following a 16-hour outage, and was kept down overnight for maintenance. The failure was confirmed in a statement by a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc.'s Verizon Enterprise Solutions, which owns Terremark, the company operating the data center.

Rubio Backs Off His Immigration Bill - Florida Republican Now Says Senate Should Agree to Whatever House Republicans Can Pass

From The Wall Street Journal:

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who did more than any senator to rally conservative support for the sweeping immigration bill the Senate passed in June, is all but abandoning the legislation he helped to author.

Early this year, Mr. Rubio aggressively promoted the measure on conservative talk shows. But in a reversal, he now is arguing the Senate bill shouldn't form the basis of negotiations with the House and that the House should work to pass narrowly tailored immigration bills.

His new position mirrors that of House Republican leaders. They have said they would deal with the complex immigration issue one piece at a time, though they have yet to bring any bills to the floor and haven't laid out a timeline for doing so.

The bill passed by the Senate included provisions for border security, visa programs for high-tech and low-skilled workers, a requirement that employers verify workers' immigration status and a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally.

"I am just trying to be realistic about what is achievable," Mr. Rubio said in an interview Monday, saying he favored allowing the House "the time and space to decide how they want to move forward, which appears to be with a series of individual bills." He said he would oppose efforts to marry any House bill with the larger Senate measure, in part because many conservatives want nothing to do with a comprehensive overhaul.

Mr. Rubio's shift comes after he was criticized by fellow conservatives for championing the Senate bill, which he often did in emotional terms as the son of Cuban immigrants. His approval ratings among Republicans have sunk in national polls, as has his standing among potential 2016 presidential candidates.

By early summer, Mr. Rubio put aside his push for an immigration deal and pivoted to other causes more in keeping with his conservative base. He called in June for a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and became an early advocate for tying last month's budget and debt talks to measures defunding the Affordable Care Act health law.

Democrats and other advocates of a broad immigration bill fear a piecemeal approach would leave out a path to citizenship for those who are now in the country illegally.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Federal Health Site Stymied By Lack of Direction - Absence of Single Leader, Disjointed Bureaucracy Tied to Troubles

From The Wall Street Journal:

Key work to create the website was given to CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Medicare and Medicaid agency], which had experience running a site for Medicare drug plans. But the agency, which is overseen by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, had a siloed management structure, and no single unit was designed to pull off a mammoth task like HealthCare.gov.

In one camp were computer experts reporting to a veteran CMS official, Michelle Snyder, who were among the first to recognize the scale of the problems facing the website, current and former officials say, such as errors in the calculation of insurance prices and eligibility determinations.

But a separate policy arm built the road map for what the exchange needed to accomplish, with strained communication with its computer counterparts; that team reported to Gary Cohen, a former California lawyer.

Word of the software problems was slow to reach Mr. Cohen, who testified to Congress on Sept. 19 that the exchange was on track even as the agency's computer experts were working around the clock at a key contractor location to hammer out a host of unanticipated flaws.

HealthCare.gov is the highest-profile experiment yet in the Obama administration's effort to modernize government by using technology, with the site intended to become a user-friendly pathway to new health insurance options for millions of uninsured Americans.

"This was the president's signature project and no one with the right technology experience was in charge," said Bob Kocher, a former White House aide who helped draft the law.

Testing of the system by insurers that had been scheduled for July didn't begin until the third week of September, said people familiar with the development and insurance executives who participated in testing. Dozens of features of the site were behind schedule, they said.

On Oct. 1, nearly three million consumers stormed the site. It crashed as the first wave sought to create accounts.

States Report Medicaid Surge After Health-Law Rollout - Great news: More in the wagon, fewer pulling the wagon as prisoners, the homeless & foodstamp recipients are recruited. - Obamacare may yet sink on its own weight. 'It's not about how many people sign up in Medicaid, but how many sign up in the exchanges.'

From The Wall Street Journal:

Some states are signing up tens of thousands of new Medicaid enrollees in the initial weeks of the health law's rollout, while placing far fewer in private health insurance—a divergence that suggests Medicaid expansion may be a larger part of the law than expected.

In one sense, the Medicaid figures are good news for the Affordable Care Act's advocates, who hoped the law would reduce the number of Americans without health insurance.

But the predominance of Medicaid enrollees so far could also fuel criticism that the law will lead to a greater government grip on the health-care system, instead of leaving room for private health insurers to grow.

Even before HealthCare.gov launched with glitches, Medicaid expansion was expected to play the leading role in bringing coverage to Americans in 2014. The Congressional Budget Office projected in May that nine million Americans would be added to Medicaid's rolls in 2014, while it said seven million would sign up for private coverage through new health-insurance exchanges.

The troubles of the federal website—which serves consumers in 36 states that don't run their own insurance marketplaces—are putting that seven million figure in jeopardy. The Medicaid expansion, however, looks closer to being on track.

Some states like Maryland, Washington and California are using aggressive outreach to get people into Medicaid, including contacting those who are already on other programs such as food stamps, said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors.

"When you actively go out and aggressively target people, they sign up," he said.

In Maryland, state officials spent the past several months reaching out to people in homeless shelters and soup kitchens as well as soon-to-be discharged prisoners. Some were already enrolled in a state program that offered limited health benefits, and About 88,000 are set to transfer Jan. 1 into Medicaid, according to Chuck Milligan, Maryland's Medicaid director.

Medicaid, a federal-state health-insurance program for the poor, was long aimed at women, children and the elderly poor. The Affordable Care Act expanded it to cover people earning up to 133% of the federal poverty level.

After the Supreme Court in June 2012 gave states the choice of whether to join the expansion, roughly half of all states decided to do so.

About half of all states aren't joining the Medicaid expansion. Many cite fears about covering the costs over the long term or expanding government.

Critics of Medicaid expansion say the program is already overburdened and may not improve the health of enrollees. Some are also raising concerns that expanding Medicaid could siphon off some younger, healthy people who could otherwise have gotten private coverage.If private insurers end up with an older, sicker population, it could threaten the Obama administration's promise of affordable coverage, said Drew Gonshorowski, policy analyst at the think tank Heritage Foundation, which opposes Medicaid expansion. "They need young, healthy individuals to support them so premiums don't go up next year," he said.

Insurers already factored in higher Medicaid enrollments when estimating premiums for uninsured Americans who may now buy private insurance, said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's trade group."There is broad agreement for the new marketplaces to work there needs to be broad participation from the young and healthy to offset the costs of older people with more health care costs," he said. "It's not about how many people sign up in Medicaid, but how many sign up in the exchanges."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

West Virginia: A blue state’s road to red - A frustrated and angry West Virginia has been cutting ties with its reliably Democratic roots

From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s era until the 2000 election, West Virginia was among the most reliably Democratic states, one of only six that Jimmy Carter carried in 1980, and 10 that Michael S. Dukakis won in 1988.

But no more.  See article in the The Washington Post.

Afghanistan - the costliest reconstruction of a single country in American history; After troops leave, U.S. to lose access to Afghan reconstruction projects worth billions

From The Washington Post:

As coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars in far-flung regions of the country will soon be impossible for American officials to safely visit and directly inspect.

The planned removal of more than 40,000 troops and the closure of dozens of bases over the next year will shrink the protective umbrella for U.S. officials to keep tabs on construction work, training programs and other initiatives in the corruption-plagued nation. Only about 20 percent of the country will be accessible to U.S. civilian oversight personnel in 2014, according to an analysis conducted by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction and obtained by The Washington Post.

Instead of curtailing those projects, the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development plan to rely on teams of private contractors to monitor the work of other private contractors on the taxpayer-funded projects. In a document soliciting firms to help with inspections, USAID said it also intends to use satellite photos and “crowdsourcing” experiments that will solicit feedback on progress from Afghans who are supposed to benefit from U.S.-financed work.

The inability of U.S. government personnel to inspect development projects is prompting worry among lawmakers and government inspectors that millions more dollars could be squandered in what has become the costliest reconstruction of a single country in American history.

Health Site Woes Undermine Obama’s Vow on Government

From The New York Times:

The implicit promise of Barack Obama’s presidency, delivered during the 2008 campaign and again repeatedly since then, was that government would not face a debacle like the recent malfunction of the technology behind the president’s new health care marketplaces.

In his biggest and most important speeches, the president often talks with passion about a “smarter, more effective government.” He has called on Congress to embrace and pay for a “21st century government that’s open and competent.” And he has vowed to work to “rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government.”

But in the pursuit of that lofty goal, Mr. Obama faces determined opposition from conservatives who view government as the problem, not the solution. And to succeed, he must win over an increasingly skeptical public whose trust in government has eroded over decades. A survey last week by the Pew Research Center found that just 19 percent of Americans trust government to do what is right just about always or most of the time.
The breakdown of the federal HealthCare.gov Web site could emerge as a test of Mr. Obama’s philosophy, with potentially serious implications for an agenda that relies heavily on the belief in a can-do bureaucracy. Michael Dimock, the Pew center’s director, said that the longer the problems persist, the more they could bolster what he called the “almost American value that government is inefficient.”
“There is a lingering kind of effect,” he said. “It matters not only because the public may have an inherent skepticism. It puts the ball on the tee for your critics and the late-night comics.”
The president is said to be immensely frustrated with the rollout of what is a central part of his most important domestic policy. A stickler for detail and discipline, Mr. Obama has directed his senior White House staff to take charge of a vigorous effort to correct the problem, and to provide him detailed updates every evening.
But he may be too late to contain the damage, at least in the short term.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs magazine and a conservative opponent of the health law, said the government’s inability to get the Web site working raises broader questions about how well the rest of the health care law will be implemented in the next several years.
“The promise of the administrative state becomes harder to believe in when it fails in practice,” Mr. Levin said. He added that it was easy to overstate the impact of a Web site that would get fixed eventually. But he said that “there’s a sense that in trying to do too much, the government creates questions about whether it can do anything at all.”
For Mr. Obama, the answer to that question has always been an enthusiastic yes. In the 2008 campaign, he said he believed “that part of my job is to make government cool again.” His campaign sometimes talked about creating an “iPod government” that is user-friendly and efficient.
And when it came time to write his State of the Union addresses as president, aides said, Mr. Obama routinely reinstated language about making government more efficient after speechwriters had taken it out, deeming it boring. In his 2011 address, Mr. Obama said: “We shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable. We should give them a government that’s more competent and more efficient. We can’t win the future with a government of the past.”
And so the question for his administration now is how badly the problems with the health care Web site shake the confidence of the American people in the government’s ability to work.
When President George W. Bush rolled out the now extremely popular prescription medication benefit for older people in 2006, the program was met with headlines that echo today’s: “Glitches Mar Launch of Medicare Drug Plan” and “Medicare Program’s First Week ‘a Mess.’ ”

In Fed and Out, Many Now Think Inflation Helps

From The New York Times:

Inflation is widely reviled as a kind of tax on modern life, but as Federal Reserve policy makers prepare to meet this week, there is growing concern inside and outside the Fed that inflation is not rising fast enough.

Some economists say more inflation is just what the American economy needs to escape from a half-decade of sluggish growth and high unemployment.

The Fed has worked for decades to suppress inflation, but economists, including Janet Yellen, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Fed starting next year, have long argued that a little inflation is particularly valuable when the economy is weak. Rising prices help companies increase profits; rising wages help borrowers repay debts. Inflation also encourages people and businesses to borrow money and spend it more quickly.

The school board in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, is counting on inflation to keep a lid on teachers’ wages. Retailers including Costco and Walmart are hoping for higher inflation to increase profits. The federal government expects inflation to ease the burden of its debts. Yet by one measure, inflation rose at an annual pace of 1.2 percent in August, just above the lowest pace on record.
The Fed, in a break from its historic focus on suppressing inflation, has tried since the financial crisis to keep prices rising about 2 percent a year. Some Fed officials cite the slower pace of inflation as a reason, alongside reducing unemployment, to continue the central bank’s stimulus campaign.
All this talk has prompted dismay among economists who see little benefit in inflation, and who warn that the Fed could lose control of prices as the economy recovers. As inflation accelerates, economists agree that any benefits can be quickly outstripped by the disruptive consequences of people rushing to spend money as soon as possible. Rising inflation also punishes people living on fixed incomes, and it discourages lending and long-term investments, imposing an enduring restraint on economic growth even if the inflation subsides.
“The spectacle of American central bankers trying to press the inflation rate higher in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis is virtually without precedent,” Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, wrote in a new book, “The Map and the Territory.” He said the effort could end in double-digit inflation.
The current generation of policy makers came of age in the 1970s, when a higher tolerance for inflation did not deliver the promised benefits. Instead, Western economies fell into “stagflation” — rising prices, little growth.
Lately, however, the 1970s have seemed a less relevant cautionary tale than the fate of Japan, where prices have been in general decline since the late 1990s. Kariya, a popular instant dinner of curry in a pouch that cost 120 yen in 2000, can now be found for 68 yen, according to the blog Yen for Living.
This enduring deflation, which policy makers are now trying to end, kept the economy in retreat as people hesitated to make purchases, because prices were falling, or to borrow money, because the cost of repayment was rising.
“Low inflation is not good for the economy because very low inflation increases the risks of deflation, which can cause an economy to stagnate,” the Fed’s chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, a student of Japan’s deflation, said in July. “The evidence is that falling and low inflation can be very bad for an economy.”
There is evidence that low inflation is hurting the American economy.
Many households also have reason to miss higher inflation. Historically, higher prices have led to higher wages, allowing borrowers to repay fixed debts like mortgage loans more easily.

Inflation also helps workers find jobs, according. to an influential 1996 paper by the economist George Akerlof and two co-authors. Rising prices allows companies to increase profit margins quietly, by not raising wages, which in turn makes it profitable for companies to hire additional workers. Lower rates of inflation have the opposite effect, making it harder to find work.  

Companies could cut wages, of course. But there is ample evidence that even during economic downturns, companies are reluctant to do so. Federal data show a large spike since the recession in the share of workers reporting no change in wages, but a much smaller increase in workers reporting wage cuts, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. There is, in practice, an invisible wall preventing pay cuts. The standard explanation is that employers fear that workers will be angry and therefore less productive.

“I want to be really careful about advocating for lower wages because I typically advocate for the other side of that equation,” said Jared Bernstein, a fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “But I think higher inflation would help.”  

The Anchorage school board, facing pressure to cut costs because of a budget shortfall, began contract negotiations with its 3,500 teachers this year by proposing to freeze rather than cut wages. The final deal, completed last month, gives the teachers raises of 1 percent in each of the next three years.  

Teachers, while not thrilled, described the deal as better than a pay cut. But it is likely, in effect, to cut the teachers’ pay. Economists expect prices to rise about 2 percent a year over the next three years, so even as the teachers take home more dollars, those dollars would have less value. Instead of a 1 percent annual increase, the teachers would fall behind by 1 percent a year.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Violence Reverses Gains in Iraq - Iraq, and by extension Anbar, lies at the fulcrum of the Middle East's power struggle between Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia

From The Wall Street Journal:

A flurry of recent attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq—strengthened by their alliance with jihadist fighters in Syria—is threatening to undo years of U.S. efforts to crush the group, widening sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

The chaos across the border in Syria and Iraqi Sunnis' feeling of discrimination under the Shiite-led government has reignited the kind of intense sectarian strife that brought Iraq to the verge of civil war in 2006-2007. A security vacuum left by the withdrawal of American combat troops in December 2011 is also helping the fighters regain a foothold.

The civilian death toll so far this year is nearly double last year's, up to over 5,700 from at least 3,200. In July 2013 alone, 1,057 people were killed—the deadliest month for Iraqis in five years.

Iraqi security officials say al Qaeda-linked fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, are moving aggressively to re-establish a base of operations in Anbar province, the stronghold of the Sunni insurgency during the U.S.-led war.

If the extremists succeed, they would undo one of the hardest-fought gains of U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. By the time of the U.S. pullout at the end of 2011, the insurgency had been significantly weakened, in large part by a U.S. alliance with moderate Sunni tribesmen.

"This is a strategic goal for ISIS to control the western part of Iraq," said Ammar Tou'ma, a member of the Iraqi parliament's security and defense committee. "In 2005 and 2006, they were controlling on the ground and used some areas as bases and training camps for their members and as a safe haven to carry out operations."

Sparsely populated Anbar province, with its majority Sunni population, sits on the porous frontier with Syria and borders Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Violence there has risen dramatically since the spring, when a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad drew a violent response from security forces.

On Tuesday, at least 22 members of the security forces were killed in a series of suicide bombings and shootings, mostly in Anbar.

No group has claimed responsibility, but the high level of coordination and sophistication—one attack sparked a 10-hour standoff with security forces—points to the involvement of ISIS, which Iraqi and American intelligence forces believe is operating out of eastern Syria.

Following recent attacks in Anbar and the northern city of Mosul, Syrian and Iraqi jihadis openly congratulated ISIS operatives on jihadi Web forums.

Whereas attacks in the rest of the country tend to be isolated acts of terror such as car and suicide bombings, Anbar officials say attacks in the province look more like muscular efforts to gain and hold territory.

The growing instability in Iraq coincides with the strengthening of jihadist rebels in Syria, many of them foreign fighters, battling to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.

The fighters flow fluidly back and forth across the Iraq-Syria border, staging attacks on both sides, Iraqi intelligence officials said.

Cooperation has bolstered the main jihadist groups in both countries and caused an escalation of attacks in Iraq, the officials said.

Security officials in Anbar say the weapons al Qaeda uses in Anbar have become more sophisticated than those used by the police and military, reflecting a relatively new interchange in military hardware between Syria and western Iraq.

"The regional situation is applying huge pressure on us," said Falih al Essawi, the deputy head of Anbar provincial council and a member in a prominent Sunni tribe. "ISIS is trying to control the borders to find a means to transport weapons, equipment and fighters between the two countries."

In Syria, the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked group, has been one of the most effective fighting forces in the revolt against Mr. Assad. But it has also contributed to divisions within the rebel camp and complicated Western efforts to aid the uprising because U.S. officials don't want to help the jihadists.

Iraqi and American intelligence agencies suspect Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al Qaeda's Iraq division, is operating out of eastern Syria.

During the Iraq war, Syria's regime facilitated a flood of foreign fighters who flowed into Iraq. The militants were battling U.S. forces and the Shiite-led government that took over after Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni regime was ousted in the early days of the war.

American troops fought some costly battles against al Qaeda and its sympathizers in Anbar, particularly in the so-called Sunni Triangle, which extended from Fallujah near Baghdad westward to the provincial capital of Anbar, Ramadi.

U.S. and Iraqi forces were finally able to subdue Anbar province during the "surge" of 2007.

While most local residents in Anbar don't support al Qaeda, many see the group as a last bastion of resistance against Shiite domination.

"ISIS isn't facing any refusal or resistance from the locals," said Mr. Tou'ma, the Shiite legislator.

Iraq, and by extension Anbar, lies at the fulcrum of the Middle East's power struggle between Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Assad, who belongs to a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has received substantial support from Iran and some tacit encouragement from Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who hasn't blocked Iranian flights suspected of carrying weapons over Iraqi airspace to Damascus, despite U.S. objections.

The Obama administration, in turn, has angered its Persian Gulf allies with its overtures to Iran and its decision not to intervene in Syria.

Inspired by the Arab uprisings sweeping the region, Sunnis in Anbar and other western provinces began weekly protests in December 2012, mostly against antiterrorism laws they claimed were disproportionately aimed at Sunnis.

When security forces killed more than 50 in a raid on a protest encampment in April, the protests evolved into a cycle of rising violence.

Come on guys. Don't quit now.This is revenue for your local cities, counties and school districts, and it has been tied up in committees long enough: GOP Primary Fights Cloud Online Sales-Tax Bill

From The Wall Street Journal:

Legislation that would allow states to collect online sales taxes has emerged as a point of tension in high-profile Senate primary races around the nation, creating new uncertainty on an issue that business has long looked to Congress to resolve.

Antitax candidates in Republican races in Wyoming, South Carolina and Tennessee have sharply criticized the legislation and the incumbent senators who voted for it last spring. Now, some Republicans in the House are worried about the political risks of supporting it.

The bill allows a state to require out-of-state sellers to collect sales taxes on state residents' purchases, even if the seller has no physical presence there. The measure is widely supported by big brick-and-mortar retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., as well as Amazon.com Inc., the online merchant. It is also backed by many governors of both parties, and most Democratic lawmakers in Washington. Many online merchants oppose it.

When the Senate passed the bill by a wide margin in May, it was seen as a big breakthrough for legislation that had been bottled up in committee for years. Supporters thought it could be one of the few major bills to pass a divided Congress this year. It is now in the hands of the House Judiciary Committee.

Since the Senate vote, opponents led by eBay Inc. and other online merchants have intensified their efforts to defeat or modify the bill. Antitax activists, including former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul and the tea-party movement, have stepped up opposition.

In Wyoming, Senate challenger Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has been telling voters that the Internet sales tax is one of her major differences with the incumbent, GOP Sen. Mike Enzi, a leading sponsor of the bill.

"I think that it's just flat wrong to have Wyoming's senator looking for ways to take money out of the pockets of the people of Wyoming," she said in a recent radio interview in Casper.

Mr. Enzi voted for the bill because he sees it as a way to "bring money back into the state," thereby avoiding the need to raise other state taxes, said Coy Knobel, a spokesman for the Enzi re-election campaign.

The politics of online taxes has always been tricky. The big-box stores support it, saying it is unfair their shoppers pay sales tax and online shoppers often don't, and Amazon.com sees it as a path to consistency in the application of taxes from state to state. Amazon also has facilities in a growing number of states, meaning it is already subject to taxes there. Other online businesses such as eBay have concerns about the measure's impact, particularly on its smaller merchants.

Political geography plays into the uncertain politics as well. For example, rural voters who shop online a lot might be opposed to paying new taxes, but might want to support their Main Street retailers who are hurt by tax-free online shopping, and also are dependent on their sales taxes for local roads and schools.

This dynamic is clear in South Carolina, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham voted for the legislation. Mr. Graham said the bill simply allows states to collect taxes that already are owed by the consumer, and puts brick-and-mortar businesses on a level playing field with Internet retailers. His primary opponent, Nancy Mace, has repeatedly criticized the legislation as a burdensome new tax.

With some recent polls showing that GOP primary voters are particularly opposed to the sales-tax change, the House is moving cautiously. "Back home, conservatives are split" over the issue, said Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas). Some support it as a matter of fairness, but others oppose it as a tax increase, he said.

"This is the wood chipper for Republicans that could face primaries in 2014," said Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.), a leading critic of the bill. "Most are smart enough not to put their hand in the wood chipper."

Some Republican governors, including Virginia's Bob McDonnell, support the online sales-tax measure. Virginia's recently adopted transportation plan includes a provision stating that if Congress fails to pass the online sales-tax legislation by Jan. 1, 2015, Virginia's gasoline tax will rise to 5.1% from 3.5%, according to a spokesman for Mr. McDonnell.

That could put pressure on some prominent Virginia GOP lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who currently controlls the bill's fate in the House.

A House Judiciary Committee aide said the panel welcomes ideas, but is "not actively drafting legislation at this time."

Defenders of the Internet sales-tax measure say they aren't unduly concerned that the political rumblings will halt the legislation in the House. "The House is steadily making progress toward a solution, and I don't think primaries will impact the legislative calendar," said Jason Brewer, vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a group of big-box stores.

The question is whether the opposition simmering outside of Washington will turn into a boil before the House gets to it.

In Tennessee, GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander is facing criticism from his tea-party-allied primary opponent, state Rep. Joe Carr. "I think it's a reflection that he [Mr. Alexander] is unwilling to challenge establishment ideas," Mr. Carr said in an interview.

Mr. Alexander sees the issue as one of fairness, said spokesman Jim Jeffries. "This bill is about two words Tennesseans strongly support—states' rights: whether states are free to collect already-existing sales and use taxes from some of the people who owe them or from all who owe them," Mr. Jeffries said.

Rep. John Duncan (R., Tenn.) said in his September newsletter that after a public debate in Tennessee, he now has "very mixed feelings" about which way to vote on the measure.

Tennessee is illustrative of the political cross-currents around the issue. Like many Sunbelt states, it is heavily dependent on its sales tax. Several state GOP leaders, including Gov. Bill Haslam, are prominent supporters of the federal legislation as a way to avoid instituting a state income tax as the sales-tax base erodes.

On the other hand, a recently released poll by two conservative advocacy groups, National Taxpayers Union and R Street, shows that voters nationally oppose the legislation by 57%, and opposition runs highest in the South, at 61%. The poll concluded that support for the measure "is a dangerous vulnerability" for GOP incumbents, though backers of the bill say their own polling shows growing support among voters.

"People like their tax-free Internet," said Glenn Jacobs, a WWE professional-wrestling star known in the ring as "Kane," who has also become a high-profile libertarian activist in his home state of Tennessee.

White House, Congress Clash on Iran - The Obama Administration Is Arguing that Diplomatic Efforts Need More Time

From The Wall Street Journal:

The White House is pressing Congress to hold back on new sanctions against Iran, pitting the administration's hopes for a re-energized diplomatic engagement against the growing concern of some lawmakers and foreign allies.

The Obama administration is arguing that diplomatic efforts need more time to contain Tehran's nuclear program. But a number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers want to bring a new sanctions bill targeting Iran's oil exports and finances to a Senate vote by the end of next week. A similar bill cleared the House of Representatives in July and is waiting to be reconciled with the Senate's.

"Iran needs to immediately end its systematic noncompliance with the repeated demands of the U.N.," said Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.), the House majority leader. "We all want negotiations to succeed, but time is clearly running out."

Senators have delayed action once already, after Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state, asked for a chance to meet the Iranians in Geneva Oct. 15 and 16 to restart negotiations. The White House, which regarded the Geneva meeting as a success, intensified its outreach to Congress this week, and said that American negotiators needed more "flexibility" to pursue the diplomacy in the coming weeks, said congressional staffers briefed on the Obama administration's strategy.

The National Security Council's point man on Iran, Philip Gordon, hosted Senate staffers at the White House on Thursday, and argued that clamping new sanctions on Iran at this stage could prove counterproductive, according to these staffers. A new round of negotiations between global powers and the Iranian government of President Hasan Rouhani is scheduled for Nov. 7-8 in Geneva.

"The White House is asking that nothing be done to undercut their efforts," said a Republican Senate staffer briefed on the White House meeting.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on Thursday's deliberations, but said the administration hoped to continue working with U.S. lawmakers to maintain pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program.

"Congress has been an important partner in our efforts thus far," said Caitlin Hayden, an NSC spokeswoman. "We will continue our close consultation, as we have in the past, so that any congressional action is aligned with our negotiating strategy."

Separately, Ms. Sherman recommended Friday that Congress pause action on new sanctions in an interview with the Voice of America news service.

A spokesman for the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota, said no date has been set for completing the Iran bill in the Senate.

Many of Washington's closest Middle East allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, have argued that international sanctions on Iran should be increased, not diminished, for diplomacy ultimately to succeed in restraining Tehran.

Iranian oil exports have been cut in half over the past year due to American and European sanctions. This is the primary reason Mr. Rouhani's government has so aggressively embraced diplomacy since taking office in August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly argued in recent weeks.

The U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security, an independent group that has tracked Iran's nuclear capabilities, released a report this week saying Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one atomic bomb in as quickly as one month. The think tank says this could be achieved if Iran used its entire stockpile of enriched uranium and all its first-generation centrifuge machines.

Iran has denied Western charges that it is trying to build nuclear weapons, saying its program is intended for power production.

The report on Iran's capabilities, coupled with the next stages of talks, brought anxious reactions from pro-Israeli lawmakers.

The Israeli leader's allies on Capitol Hill have been pressing for immediate new sanctions

"Despite President Rouhani's 'charm offensive,' Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons capability continues unabated," said the Republican Jewish Coalition's director Matt Brooks. "By moving aggressively to ratchet up economic pressure on Tehran, Congress enhances the prospect that the regime will alter its dangerous course."

"Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security," The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said after meeting Mr. Netanyahu late last month.

Obama administration officials feel they already have significant economic leverage over Tehran and worry additional sanctions at this stage could undermine Mr. Rouhani's ability to negotiate.

Conservative Iranian religious and military leaders have been attacking Mr. Rouhani's outreach to the U.S., particularly his September phone call with President Barack Obama.

It was the first conversation between an American and Iranian president in more than three decades.

New sanctions in Iran, Obama administration officials believe, could only embolden the hard-liners to attack Mr. Rouhani. "We can always impose new sanctions later if the Iranians pull back from the talks," said a senior U.S. official.

Negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, are focused on a two-stage approach toward limiting Tehran's nuclear work, according to diplomats taking part in the talks.

The Geneva meetings are seeking a short-term formula that will prevent Iran from having the capacity to quickly break out and develop nuclear weapons.

Once these confidence-building steps are taken, Iran and the global powers, known as the P5+1, would seek to reach a final agreement on ending Iran's nuclear threat, according to these diplomats.

Mr. Rouhani's government is demanding, in return, a significant and rapid rollback of the sanctions that have decimated Tehran's finances. The U.S. and its European allies are struggling to find ways to respond to Iranian concessions without weakening the overall international sanctions regime.

Among the steps being considered, according to U.S. and European officials, are measures to help Tehran reclaim billions of dollars of its oil earnings that have been frozen in overseas accounts. The Obama administration and European Union are also considering ways to ease restrictions on Tehran's access to the international banking system.

The Obama administration has fought Congress on Iran sanctions for much of its time in office.

The White House deeply opposed a bipartisan congressional effort in 2011 to impose U.S. sanctions on Iran's central bank, the primary conduit for Tehran's oil exports. Obama administration officials worried implementation of the legislation could fuel a spike in global energy prices—undermining the U.S.'s economic recovery—as global supply would shrink.

U.S. officials today acknowledge that the sanctioning of Iran's central bank, and the European Union's oil embargo on Tehran, have probably been the most punishing measures on Iran to date.

Friday, October 25, 2013

In White House Pitches, Rosy View of Health Care Site - The rosy presentations set President Obama up for even more criticism when the portal was swamped by millions of people who quickly found out they could not log on.

From The New York Times:

Just days before HealthCare.gov went live with disastrous results, top White House officials were excitedly briefing lawmakers, reporters, Capitol Hill staff members and Washington pundits on their expectations for the government’s new health care Web site.

Led by David Simas, a senior communications adviser in the West Wing, and sometimes joined by Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and others, the fast-paced PowerPoint briefings showed images of a shiny new Web site that was elegantly designed, simple to use and ready for what officials hoped would eventually be a flood of customers on Oct. 1.

In fact, the rosy presentations set President Obama up for even more criticism when the portal was swamped by millions of people who quickly found out they could not log on. The technical problems that emerged have raised questions — still not entirely answered — about how much the president’s aides knew, or should have known, about the site’s troubles.

On Wednesday, the administration said that people won't have to pay a tax penalty in 2014—which starts at $95, or 1% of taxable income—so long as they sign up for health coverage by March 31. The deadline had previously been ambiguous, with some calculating it would come by mid-February.

From The Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Health Law Fails to Keep Prices Low in Rural Areas - “There’s nothing in the structure of the Affordable Care Act which really deals with that problem.” This can be said about so much of the Act.

From The New York Times:

As technical failures bedevil the rollout of President Obama’s health care law, evidence is emerging that one of the program’s loftiest goals — to encourage competition among insurers in an effort to keep costs low — is falling short for many rural Americans.

While competition is intense in many populous regions, rural areas and small towns have far fewer carriers offering plans in the law’s online exchanges. Those places, many of them poor, are being asked to choose from some of the highest-priced plans in the 34 states where the federal government is running the health insurance marketplaces, a review by The New York Times has found.

Of the roughly 2,500 counties served by the federal exchanges, more than half, or 58 percent, have plans offered by just one or two insurance carriers, according to an analysis by The Times of county-level data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. In about 530 counties, only a single insurer is participating.

The analysis suggests that the ambitions of the Affordable Care Act to increase competition have unfolded unevenly, at least in the early going, and have not addressed many of the factors that contribute to high prices. Insurance companies are reluctant to enter challenging new markets, experts say, because medical costs are high, dominant insurers are difficult to unseat, and powerful hospital systems resist efforts to lower rates.

“There’s nothing in the structure of the Affordable Care Act which really deals with that problem,” said John Holahan, a fellow at the Urban Institute, who noted that many factors determine costs in a given market. “I think that all else being equal, premiums will clearly be higher when there’s not that competition.”

Part I of II - From the Cracker Squires Archives: Tom Watson news reminds me of these posts: Cameron McWhirter pens a keeper and reminds me of one from the Cracker Squire Archives and that as of late (and yes, probably more to come) our heritage and history have gotten knocked a bit too much for my liking.

A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in the Memphis, Tenn., park named for the Confederate cavalryman.

Cameron McWhirter, once on the staff of the AJC, has penned a keeper in The Wall Street Journal that reminds me of my feelings about our heritage and history that are reflected in the following 8-29-04 post entitled "I'm with the flaggers on this one -- Mock hanging of Confederate flag; I say hang the carpetbagger":

The Gwinnett Daily Post has an article entitled "Plan for mock lynching of a Confederate flag stirs controversy." And damn well it should.

It seems as though this guy from Florida – a no-good Yankee carpetbagger no doubt – has got it in his mind to hold a mock lynching of a Confederate flag as part of an art exhibition at a Gettysburg College art gallery early next month.

There is a minor movement afoot to cancel the show. Count me in.

Of all places, Gettysburg, a sacred place where both sides fought valiantly and lost thousands and thousands of lives. I took my three girls there, and hope to take my grandkids there one day just as I look forward to taking them to the Statute of Liberty.

I voted with the majority (the vote was 3-to-1) in the nonbinding referendum that approved our present flag, almost a replica of the Confederate national flag, the Stars and Bars. And I am proud of our present flag, not just because it is a part of our heritage and disguishes us from say Nevada, but because it is one good-looking flag.

I also liked the looks of the flag the legislature adopted in 1956 that contained the St. Andrew’s cross. I also like the looks of the flag the legislature replaced in 1956, but not as much as I did the looks of the 1956 flag.

(Andrews was the brother of Simon Peter, was supposedly the first-called disciple, and was reportedly crucified by the Romans on an x-shaped cross, claiming he did not feel worthy to be crucified on a regular cross as Jesus was.)

Am I glad we changed flags? You dern right I am. We had no choice.

Congress could outlaw "white only" signs, but not what the Confederate battle flag based on the St. Andrews cross had come to be – a symbol of rascism and hatred. Unfortunately, to many Americans it conjured up memories of lynchings, the KKK and nightriders, Jim Crowism, etc.

It had to go and I am glad it is behind us. Changing it took courage. We won’t hear about it next week, but Sen. Miller almost lost re-election in 1994 as governor for trying to change the flag during his first term.

And we all know it contributed to Roy Barnes’ defeat. Barnes has said: "Of course, I knew there was a chance [that changing the flag] would affect my re-election, but I also knew that the time had come to do it. We had watched what was happening in South Carolina and Mississippi. I didn't want the flag to divide Georgia more than it already had. It was the state government that changed the flag in 1956, and it was our responsibility to correct that mistake.''

I am happy the Stars and Bars has no such connotation. To try to give it such would be a mistake and injustice to the South’s history and heritage. As the Confederate national flag, Stars and Bars is part of our history as are our ancestors who fought with valor to the end, regardless for which side.

Just as the we now sing that great anthem The Battle Hymn of Republic which was the Union's marching song, we should not forget what the colors blue and grey represent, or let the song Dixie go the way of the Edsel and Oldsmobile, and not appreciate the book and movie Gone with the Wind.

And as far as I am concerned, neither should our Confederate Monuments in counties such as my own and so many others in Georgia and the South; the statutes that line the streets in Richmond, Virginia; and those on state capitols throughout the South, be regarded as other than part of our region's history.

The Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression -- call it what suits you -- is part of our history. The Confederate flag is part of that history. The carpetbagger and not our history is who needs to be lynched.

In his keeper, Cameron Whirter writes:

A leafy park in downtown Memphis, Tenn., until a few weeks ago was named in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate lieutenant general. But the park—home to a large statue of Gen. Forrest astride his horse as well as the graves of the general and his wife—has just been renamed Health Sciences Park by the Memphis City Council, a move that has set off the latest battle in the South's continuing culture clash over the Civil War.

The council made the switch Feb. 5, days after learning of a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature that if passed would prohibit renaming any parks or monuments honoring war veterans, including Confederates. The council voted quickly to strip Gen. Forrest's name from the park, as well as change the names of two others, Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, which honored the Confederacy's president.

No one on the council voted against the park renaming, an action that was supported by civil-rights groups in the city. Gen. Forrest, aside from his military prowess, was also a slave trader and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a legacy that has long rankled many in Memphis, one of the largest black-majority cities in the country. But the council's move has infuriated Confederate-heritage activists

Republican state Rep. Steve McDaniel, a self-described "big-time Civil War buff," proposed his "Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act" because he worried that public parks and monuments honoring American conflicts and their veterans could be renamed or removed by groups that found parts of history distasteful, he said. "If we don't preserve our historic places today, who's going to have them there for our posterity?" he said.

In Tennessee and across the South, thousands of communities have named streets, parks and monuments to honor the "Lost Cause." But since the civil-rights movement, disputes have erupted as public views have shifted.

Confederate battle emblems have disappeared from several state flags. Street names have been changed. Just last year, the city council of Selma, Ala., halted repairs to a monument to Gen. Forrest after a bust of the general was stolen.

While many in the South are proud of Confederate heritage, others see rebel monuments and parks as glorifying the institution of slavery. Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, said in an interview that Mr. McDaniel's bill was "crazy."

Nowhere has the bill caused more uproar than in Memphis, Tennessee's largest city. After learning of Mr. McDaniel's bill, the city council stripped the parks of their Confederate names and set up an advisory committee to find permanent names. In addition to the Forrest Park change to Health Sciences Park, Confederate Park was temporarily renamed Memphis Park and Jefferson Davis Park was renamed Mississippi River Park.

Lee Harris, a councilman who led the name-change effort, said fear of Mr. McDaniel's bill becoming law galvanized the council. He said history "is of less importance than making sure our public space is common ground." He said the parks were "not historical at all. What we had was celebration" of the Confederacy.

But Becky Muska, who lives near Memphis and has Confederate ancestors, told the council the day it voted to change the park names: "You do not have the right to spin, edit, denounce, slander, revise, tear down, hide [or] destroy my history, because when you do that, you do that to Memphis."

Mr. McDaniel said his bill wouldn't be retroactive, so if it passes, the Memphis parks wouldn't revert to their Confederate names. He said he believed it would pass the Republican-controlled Legislature. Ms. Muska said in an interview that she and others are considering suing Memphis.

Gen. Forrest is considered one of the Confederacy's greatest cavalry commanders, according to biographer Jack Hurst. But he was also a slave trader before the war and commanded troops involved in a massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn., in 1864, and was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, Mr. Hurst said.

Lee Millar, Memphis spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Confederate heritage group, said Gen. Forrest was a "very humane" slave trader. He also said the Fort Pillow incident wasn't a massacre and that the KKK under Gen. Forrest was "like a neighborhood watch," not the racist organization that it became later. "Unfortunately, he gets a bad rap by association," Mr. Millar said.

Historians disagree. Mr. Hurst said Gen. Forrest was "one of the biggest slave traders in the western South," and slave trading was by definition inhumane. John Cimprich, a history professor who published a book on Fort Pillow, said Gen. Forrest's exact role in the incident is unclear, but black soldiers, many of whom had surrendered, were slaughtered by troops under his command. Mr. Cimprich said Gen. Forrest's KKK involvement remains "the worst thing on his record."

"I understand if a local community is not comfortable with a park being named after him," he said.

Part II of II - Tom Watson - Bid to Move Atlanta Statue Opens Window to Past

Part I of II noted there were probably "more to come."  He is one on Tom Watson.

From The New York Times:

The description that accompanied an executive order by Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia this month was a mundane one: “authorizing the relocation of a statue.”

But Mr. Deal’s understated edict did not affect just any statue. Rather, the governor ordered workers to move a 12-foot bronze monument to the populist firebrand and white supremacist Thomas E. Watson that has towered over the grounds of the State Capitol here for more than 80 years.

Georgia officials said the plan to move the statue of Watson, a political power broker and journalist whose legacy includes a role in instigating the infamous 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, was not connected to the inflammatory stances that defined him late in his career.

“This is just part of an ongoing project to renovate the steps around the State Capitol,” said Paul Melvin, a Georgia Building Authority spokesman. “We’re moving the statue because of the construction. To move it back would be a prohibitive cost that’s not in the budget.”

Mr. Melvin said the monument, which celebrates Watson as “a champion of right who never faltered in the cause,” would leave the Capitol grounds next month as part of the $2 million project and remain permanently in a nearby park, which the state owns.

But the decision to move the statue is another chapter in this state’s complex relationship with its history and with a man who represented Georgia in both the House and the Senate and in 1896 ran for vice president on the Populist ticket with William Jennings Bryan.

Early in his career, Watson was a leading advocate for the rural areas he represented, pressing for free mail delivery and supporting white and black farmers alike. He also criticized lynching and backed suffrage for blacks.

But his opinions later shifted. He became a ruthless critic of blacks, Jews and Catholics and once cautioned that “another Ku Klux Klan may be organized.” A publisher, he used the titles he controlled to build public support for segregation.

“His story is quintessentially Southern: bright promise being dragged down into the muck by bigotry and ignorance,” said James C. Cobb, a Southern history expert at the University of Georgia.

He added: “He was not a king, but a kingmaker. His endorsements could really swing sizable blocs of votes because he had a very, very strong following out in the Georgia countryside.”

Watson’s legacy has long made his statue an unsettling sight for black lawmakers and others here.

“It never should have been right in front of the Capitol in the first place,” said State Senator Donzella James, a Democrat from Atlanta. “I’m glad that it is being moved because we have all of our press conferences there, and we’ve had to stand right next to that thing.”

But State Representative Tommy Benton, one of six House Republicans who sponsored a proposal this year intended to maintain the prestige of state-owned statues, cautioned that Georgia should not erase its past.

“I’ve learned to take the good history with the bad history,” Mr. Benton said.

He said he feared that relocating Watson’s statue will lead people to seek the removal of monuments to other historical figures with troubling records.

“They’re attempting to whitewash history so that only the things that are pertinent to them are remembered,” Mr. Benton said. “I’m not a big fan of William Sherman’s, but I’m not out there protesting his statues in other states because he did $100 million worth of damage in Georgia.”

Like other Southern states, Georgia has wrestled in recent decades with how to recognize its racial heritage.

The state flag conspicuously featured the Confederate battle emblem until 2001, and anger stemming from the decision to alter the standard helped push Gov. Roy E. Barnes from office.

On Tuesday, Mr. Barnes said that his successor’s decision was a step toward deeper reconciliation, whatever his motives were to support the removal of the Watson statue.

And Mr. Barnes said that he wished the statue had been relocated years ago, when he was governor.

“I just never got around to it,” he recalled. “I regret I didn’t.”

From the AJC's Political Insider:

For decades, visitors to the state Capitol have been greeted by a statue of the Georgia populist who gave rural America free postal service – a racist, anti-Catholic politician whose anti-Semitic screeds were credited with fueling sentiment for the lynching of Leo Frank.

A spokesman for Nathan Deal this morning confirmed that the 12-foot statue of Thomas Watson is being permanently relocated across the street, as part of a renovation of the Capitol grounds.

An odd political figure who began as a 19th century liberal, who courted newly empowerment of African-American voters after Reconstruction, Watson evolved an advocate of disenfranchisement of blacks and a fulminating critic of anything the least bit foreign in the New South.

Here’s a line from Steve Oney’s 2003 book, "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank":
A day after Watson's broadside appeared, reports began to circulate that a group of 150 Mariettans known as the Knights of Mary Phagan had met at the child's grave and vowed "to 'get' Slaton and Frank, no matter how long it takes." All three Atlanta papers ignored these rumblings, but The New York Times flatly asserted: "There seems to be little doubt that such a body has been formed."
For years, whether at the in-state funeral of Corretta Scott King or Kasim Reed’s 2009 announcement that he would run for mayor of Atlanta, the statue has offered a discordant note. On the other side, the statue has occasionally served as a rallying point for states’ rights and Southern heritage enthusiasts.

But it looks like the statue’s greatest sin might be that it takes up too much valuable space on the Capitol’s front apron.

From the AJC's Political Insider:

Gov. Nathan Deal came to north Georgia to meet with business leaders on Tuesday, which gave us an opportunity to bug him personally about his executive order that will shift the statue of Tom Watson from its spot at the state Capitol’s front door to a less prominent locale across the street.

So was there was there any reasoning beyond the renovation to remove the statue of Tom Watson, a politician and newspaper publisher made infamous by his attacks on Jews, Catholics and blacks? Said Deal:
"We were very concerned about the condition of the steps outside the Capitol. It doesn't look like a major problem from the outside until you start looking closely and see the cracks. It's a safety issue. And I'm told the statue needs to be moved to accommodate that.”
But does it also send another sort of message, that Georgia has turned a page in its history? Said the governor:
"I suppose that would be one of the good signals that would come from it, but I don't want to magnify it beyond the real reasons. And the real reasons were safety for people coming and going from the Capitol and the steps needed to be repaired. And the statue was in the way.”
Are any other statues up in the air? That provoked a chuckle:
"Not that I'm aware of."
Original post:

We just heard back from state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who introduced legislation that would make it harder for the state to remove monuments like the Tom Watson statue that's headed from the statehouse steps next month.

He wants to make clear he's not riling Gov. Nathan Deal, who ordered the removal of the statue of the avowed racist Georgia politician to accommodate a renovation. But he said he would press on with his legislation, which requires officials removing historical markers, statues and monuments to move them to a place of similar significance.

Language to that effect might be difficult to craft. Is there any place of prominence at the state Capitol equal to the front door?

But here’s what Benton, who taught Georgia history for three decades, had to say:
"I want to make sure that in our politically correct society we don't start moving things that tell our history. It's all history. Somebody back in the 1930s thought enough of Tom Watson to put a statue up. If we start judging our ancestors, how are we going to be judged? What if we roll over every time someone cries racist, or says something isn't politically correct? I bet we would have to remove statues all over the South."
His point somewhat echoes the argument made by UGA historian James Cobb, who says there's a place for history - both good and bad - if placed in the proper context. Said Benton:
"You can't pick and choose what history you're going to remember or you'll lose a whole bunch of your past. Watson was a racist and anti-Semite. But he was also probably the most powerful politician in Georgia for 25 years."

Update on 10-31-2013

See Jim Salzer's story in the AJC noting:
Leaders of Georgia’s Sons of Confederate Veterans division are urging Gov. Nathan Deal to bring the Tom Watson statue back to the Capitol after a statehouse renovation project is completed.

 “It is a dangerous thing anytime there is an attempt to rewrite or cover up any people’s history,” Jack Bridwell, Georgia’s SCV division commander said in a release. “The current decision to begin removing statues of Georgia’s elected statesmen from the Capitol grounds just because some vocal individuals today may not understand or agree with all of their political decisions a hundred years ago is historical revisionism at its best and an outright attempt to steal our heritage and history as Georgians at its worst.”

Democratic Unease Grows on Health Law - Lawmakers Cite Website Woes in Call for Delay in Penalties for the Uninsured

From The Wall Street Journal:

The hard line Democrats have drawn against delaying a core element of the federal health law has begun to crack, as problems with the new federal insurance website prompted calls for President Barack Obama to delay penalties on people who don't carry health coverage.

Democratic leaders in Congress and Mr. Obama have defended the minimum penalty of $95 in 2014 as crucial to inducing uninsured Americans to sign up for coverage, and the party held firm against Republican demands to delay or eliminate the coverage requirement that provoked this month's partial government shutdown.

Late Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would establish what amounts to a six-week extension in the time people have to obtain insurance coverage before incurring a penalty, responding to what some have described as a lack of clarity in the law over the deadline.

The penalty for failure to carry insurance is at the heart of the Affordable Care Act. Insurers say individuals—particularly younger, healthier people—must be coaxed to buy insurance so that carriers aren't left with a risk pool of predominantly older and sicker people.

The federal government is running exchanges on behalf of 36 states that chose not to operate them directly. The 14 states that opted to run their own exchanges have generally had fewer problems, although that varies among the states.

Two Democrats who long have opposed the penalty called Wednesday for it to be delayed. In doing so, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Rep. John Barrow (D., Ga.) joined a longtime supporter of the law, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), who on Tuesday had urged the White House to consider extending enrollment deadlines and waiving the tax penalty for consumers who don't sign up for insurance.

In clarifying the penalty deadlines Wednesday, the administration said people won't incur the penalty as long as they sign up for coverage by March 31, 2014, the last day of the official open-enrollment period. A complicated wrinkle in the law had suggested that most people would have to sign up by Feb. 14 to avoid a penalty for the year.

Comments from some Democrats suggested that they were worried that the administration could change course even as they were defending the individual mandate and the deadlines in the law. "I am perfectly willing to defend technological glitches, but I think if there's any contemplation of a mission change we should know about it," said Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.).

Supporters of the health law noted Wednesday that this isn't the first time a large government program has gotten off to a rocky start. Commerce committee Democrats released a six-page memo detailing how the rollout of the Medicare prescription drug plan in 2005 also ran into problems which required some short delays.

"The problems that occurred during the implementation of Medicare Part D do not excuse the difficulties that the public is experiencing with the HealthCare.gov website. But they do illustrate that stumbles during the launch of major programs have occurred in the past and have been successfully overcome," the Democratic memo says.