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Primary Races 2014: Nebraska

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Next in our series of primary races: Nebraska, a seat being vacated by the retirement of Mike Johanns.

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Ben Sasse is considered the leading candidate to win the nomination.  Sasse is the President of Midland University.  He has a series of prominent endorsements, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth and prominent GOP leaders such as Tom Coburn and Paul Ryan.

 

He has been steadfastly conservative, opposing Obamacare among other things, though was criticized for his support of Medicare Part D.

The other major candidate is former State Treasurer Shane Osborn.  Osborn actually has a significant history:  he was the pilot at the Hainan Island incident.  On April 1, 2001, Osborn was piloting an EP-3E airplane with a 23 member crew about 70 miles (110 km) away from the Chinese border when it collided with a Chinese fighter jet.

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As Treasurer, Osborn focused on increased transparency for the state administration.  He also put extensive effort into returning private property from the hands of government.

Freedomworks has endorsed Osborn, which sets the major conservative groups against each other in this race.

The other candidates, who are considered longshots, include Sid Dinsdale, President of Pinnacle Bank, Clifton Johnson, and attorney Bart McLeay.

 

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Primary Races 2014: Oklahoma

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Special Note:  I am starting a new series trying to give a run down and evaluation of the key primary races across the nation. The goal ultimately is to use the grassroots organizations at the Conservative Union and our sister organizations to pick the best conservative candidate possible.  This is the first in that series. 

Oklahoma was a race nobody even considered several weeks ago.  Sen. Tom Coburn was ready and able to serve out the rest of his term, and then retire happily to greener pastures.

However, Sen. Coburn decided enough was enough.  Whether it was his ailing health, or the worsening political climate in D.C., it started a tough race to see who would take his coveted Senate seat.

Here are the current list of candidates:

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Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is a current member of the House of Representatives, representing Oklahoma’s 5th district, which encompasses the central portion of the state, including the capital, Oklahoma City. Lankford succeeded current governor, Mary Fallin, in that district.

Lankford is very likely to get the core of the Oklahoma GOP delegation behind his candidacy, including Sen. Coburn and Gov. Fallin.

However, numerous conservative groups are opposed to him.  Lankford has traditionally been relatively conservative, but has supported the GOP leadership on many occasions against the hard-line austerity hawks and others.  Club for Growth, who adores Coburn, opposes Lankford’s candidacy.  As an example, Club for Growth gives Coburn a 96% score for conservatism, while they only give a 78% score to Lankford.

Senate Conservatives Fund has also that it won’t support his Senate bid “because of his past votes to increase the debt limit, raise taxes, and fund Obamacare. “We have reviewed his record and it’s clear that conservatives cannot count on him to fight for their principles,” added Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director.

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Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon is a new name to national conservatives, but quickly got the attention of some of the larger conservative groups.

Former Sen. J.C. Watts was considering a run, but it appears he will take a pass, and many observers believe he will support Shannon’s candidacy.  That will provide him with a great amount of legitimacy going forward.

Shannon has advocated the sale of unused state properties. He has focused on spending tax dollars on much-needed infrastructure repairs, such as deficient bridges and roads. Shannon also has advocated a measure to require Oklahoma recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) to perform at least 35 hours of work activities or be denied aid. The program was ultimately scaled back significantly.

Currently, a survey from GOP firm Harper Polling gives Lankford 54 percent support among GOP primary voters, while Shannon takes 18 percent support and paramedic James Weger takes just 1 percent. Twenty-seven percent are undecided.  Most of the margin however is because of Shannon’s low name recognition.

Right now, it appears the other potential big names in the race, including the aforementioned Watts, Rep. Tom Cole, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, and former Gov. Frank Keating, among others, will take a pass.  It is very like this will be a Lankford vs. Shannon race, with the prime political players in the state aligning behind one or another.

Although the traditional conservative groups have lined up against Lankford, that by no means makes him a moderate. He is pro-gun, pro-austerity, and anti-Obamacare.  The real debate will be whether going forward Shannon or Lankford will be a more effective voice for core conservative principles.

 

 

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Election 2014: Senate

Courtesy of University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Courtesy of University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The 2014 midterm provides many possibilities, and many conundrums for conservatives. After squandering several ideal potential Senate race victories in 2012, most notably in Missouri and Indiana, Republicans face a relatively favorable landscape in this cycle.  However, that by no means implies that taking the Senate majority will be an easy task.

States that are foregone conclusions:

Safe Republican Seats:  Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska*, Oklahoma, South Carolina (both Senators), Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming.

Safe Democrat Seats: Iowa*, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island

* denotes seats where the incumbent is retiring. 

Races Up For Grabs:

Alaska:   Mark Begich was lucky to win his seat 6 years ago.  If not for a late prosecutorial action against former Senator Ted Stevens, Begich would never have won the seat in the first place. The best thing going for Begich is the competitive Republican primary, where Lieutenant Governor  Mead Treadwell, 2010 nominee Joe Miller (a Tea Party candidate), and State Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan will all challenge each other in a heated primary.  Miller ran a very poor race last time, and his strength this time is dubious.  Treadwell is the candidate that is most likely to unite the GOP.  The key point in this race will be Begich’s defense of his Obamacare vote, which will be a recurring meme in this piece.

Prediction:  Slight Democrat lean, because of the GOP primary fight.

Arkansas:  Mark Pryor is among the weakest incumbents, and has consistently trailed Republican Rep. Tom Cotton for months.  Pryor is actively running away from Obamacare now, although advertisement money is pounding him on the issue.

Prediction:  Republican lean.

Colorado:  Mark Udall seems like he was on course for a smooth re-election campaign a year ago; that is no longer the case.  A mix of Obamacare, along with resurgent gun rights movement in the state, have moved his seat into a tossup.  2010 Sen nominee Ken Buck, Ex-state House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, State Sen. Owen Hill, State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, Businessman Mark Aspiri, and Businessman Jaime McMillan all are considering primary challenges.  Buck is the most well-known name, but he ran a poor campaign in his Senatorial loss last time.  This is a primary that will be hotly contested by the GOP and the Tea Party.

Prediction:  Democrat lean.

Georgia:  With the retirement of Saxby Chambliss, and without a clear obvious successor, Democrats hope to steal this seat with Michelle Nunn, the daughter of long-time Democrat Senator Sam Nunn.  Even with money and name recognition, that will be a hard slog.   Ex-Sec. of State Karen Handel, Rep. Jack Kingston, Rep. Phil Gingrey, Rep. Paul Broun, Businessman David Perdue are just a few of the Republicans challenging for the seat.

Prediction:  Republican lean.

Iowa:  Iowa should be a much competitive race for Republicans this cycle, with the retirement of Tom Harkin.  However, a primary race with no clear big name limits the GOP chances against Democrat Rep. Bruce Bailey.

Prediction:  Democrat lean.

Kentucky: Mitch McConnell is the Wiley E. Coyote of Republican politics.  Tea party hates him, he has been challenged multiple times, but he somehow always pulls through.  That is the most likely result here against well-financed Democrat Sec. of State Allison Lundergran Grimes.

Prediction:  Republican lean.

Louisiana:  Mary Landrieu is in trouble.  But we hear this during every re-election cycle and she still manages to pull through.  Is Obamacare the albatross that finally weighs her down too much?  A strong GOP field is led by Rep. Bill Cassidy, Ret. Air Force Col. Rob Maness, and State Rep. Paul Hollis.

Prediction:  Tossup.

Michigan:  This is a race that should be an easy lay-up for Democrats.   Carl Levin has held this seat for decades, and Republicans have not been a significant factor in Senate or Presidential races here for decades.  But former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has won statewide races here before, and is well-financed, and Rep. Gary Peters, her Democrat opponent, is not exactly a household name.

Prediction:  Tossup.

Montana:  With Sen. Baucus’s retirement, this should be an easy pickup for Republicans.  But considering 2012 where Republicans lost three seats that they should easily have picked up, nothing should be considered easy.  This is a wide open primary race on both sides of the aisle.

Prediction:  Republican lean.

North Carolina:  Kay Hagan is in big trouble.  She trails all of her GOP challengers, and these are not well-known Republicans running. She is running away from Obama and Obamacare as fast as her feet will take her, but it is not likely enough.

Prediction:  Republican lean.

New Hampshire:  Jeanne Shaheen should be a cakewalk for re-election, but Obamacare is dragging down her favorables.  With former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown ready to jump in the race, he will make it at least somewhat interesting.

Prediction:  Democrat lean.

Virginia:  Similar to New Hampshire above.  Mark Warner should be walking easily to re-election, but well-known insider Ed Gillespie will be able to raise money and is high-profile enough to make the race interesting.

Prediction:  Democrat lean.

This is just the earliest look at the Senate races.  In the short run, what will be most important is the primary races, choosing the most competent conservative to challenge in the general election.

Early next week, I will have a primer on which primary races we should watch, and candidates to keep an eye on.

 

 

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Mitt: Movie Review

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So, last night Netflix finally released Mitt, the documentary by Romney family friend Greg Whiteley, who started filming as far back as 2006. It is a fascinating and unique view of a man (and in reality, an entire family) who twice ran for the Presidency, failed, and still in many ways may have been better off for it.

What is stunningly obvious, from 2006 onward, is how reticent his family is to making a Presidential run.  Mitt Romney himself seems torn.  From his personal statements, you start to believe that he truly believes he can help the nation, but you wonder if he thinks that personally this will be damaging, and his life ‘as-is’ is preferable to taking on this Herculean task.

Early in the movie, the family sits around in their Family Room, discussing the pros and cons of running for the 2008 nomination.  Almost nobody gives a positive to running.  But what is fascinating to me is how normal this discussion was.  I have had many family conversations just like this one, on far more mundate issues, like where we would take a vacation, a family financial decision, etc.

Only Tagg Romney makes a powerful argument to make a Presidential run:  “If you don’t win, we’ll still love you,” he says. “The country may think of you as a laughingstock, and we’ll know the truth, and that’s OK. But I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it.” As the 2008 nomination proceeds, we see the hesitancy of the family as a common thread in their electoral race.

The family’s faith is prominent in the movie, something we didn’t see as much on the campaign trail.  Their moment of prayer almost seems intrusive, but at the same time, gives insight to how central Mormonism is to who this man is.

I think Mitt’s honesty about his own vulnerabilities is quite interesting as well.  He once calls himself a ‘flawed candidate’ because he can not rid himself of the flip-flopper label.  He, from the beginning, understands that he is far from perfect.  And he was quite self-reflective at times.  The scene during the night of election day 2012 was quite fitting.  At one point, he asks (so he can start getting ready for his concession speech, “Does anyone have the President’s number?  I hadn’t thought of that,”, chuckling a little while saying it.

One wonders, to this day, if Barack Obama is as self-reflective.  We simply don’t know, because we have not been given a window into that person as we do here.

Many liberals complain that this documentary didn’t dig into Romney’s policy decisions, or the inner strategy of the 2012 campaign which in retrospect was clearly flawed.  Some have argued that we needed to see more infighting, and the underbelly of the campaign.  But they are missing the point, as usual.  This was about Mitt Romney the man, far more than Mitt Romney the politician. There are obvious positives and negatives to taking this strategy with this documentary, but it is what it is.  It was artistic license, nothing more.

I don’t think this film changes the political dynamic in the least, however.  Barack Obama was going to win, regardless of what we saw of Mitt Romney behind closed doors.  It was strategic mistakes that doomed his campaign, not dislike of the man himself.  But I think this insight is quite useful.  After 5 years in office, and 9 years since he came to political prominence, we have still yet to see this kind of insight into who our current President is…which is quite informative about the entire Barack Obama Presidency.  Such transparency is not in our President’s nature.

But what this film does do, for me at least, is convince me that my original trust in this man was right.  I have doubted many of my choices when it comes to people I have supported for public office (none more than John McCain, a vote now that I regret).  But I have not once regretted supporting, campaigning for, and voting for Mitt Romney. This film likely guarantees that feeling will never change.

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Why The Media Is Doing Chris Christie , And The Entire Conservative Movement, A Favor With Bridgegate

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Bridgegate, as ludicrous as the term is, has now become the popular metaphor for the political shenanigans played by underlings of the Chris Christie administration in their Keystone Cops manuever to punish political enemies by closing down lanes of the George Washington Bridge for reasons that I still fail to fathom.  But as ludicrous as the term is, or the scandal as a whole is, the entire escapade should be thought of as a boon.

Why, might you ask?

For conservatives, it gives the entire GOP establishment time to take a deep, relaxing breath. Many of my ‘establishment’ contacts within the Republican Party were on the verge of jumping on to the Christie train, because they felt it was leaving the station, and nobody wanted to be left behind.  Romney confidants were lining up to join the Christie campaign, as were major Bush donors.  All the ducks were lining up in a neat little row.

Forget whether or not Christie was the best Republican candidate, or if he is even a conservative at all.  The entire concept of anointing anyone at this early stage, barely a year after our last losing campaign, is stupid. We have barely come to terms with the real reasons we lost with Mitt Romney, and we are ready to jump ship with another Northeastern quasi-Republican because he talks tough and get RINOs to fund him?

These are the moments that I accept the GOP is the stupid party.

But Bridgegate?  It is a gift from the heavens.  Truly and deeply, thank you for this gift.

What this scandal does is forces the establishment to look at the field of competitors. And the field, despite the media narrative, is quite strong.  For all the joking you hear from mainstream journalists, there are a multitude of qualified Governors, Executives, and Legislators that could all make fine Presidential material. I am more than happy to allow the nomination process run its due course before jumping on anyone’s bandwagon this early in the cycle.

Additionally, this keeps the bulk of political money off the table for the time being.  Once donors start giving to a candidate, it is very difficult from them to stop…even when they know their candidate has lost, or will eventually lose.

As for Chris Christie, he may not see it now because he is in the eye of the storm, but this was a boon to him as well. He has been the media darling; the GOP example of someone who could ‘work with both sides’, who would go on MSNBC and be praised by liberals as a ‘good Republican’.

How long did that love affair last after Bridgegate broke?

All moderate Republicans who are in love with the mainstream media come to this reality sooner or later.  John McCain didn’t realize it until he was well into the 2008 campaign.  Jon Huntsman remains a media darling to this day for a simple reason: he lost…badly.  Better Christie wakes up now, and realizes a simple, innate reality of the media today:

The mainstream media is no friend of yours, if you are a Republican.

If Christie survives this, first it teaches us that he has the strength of will and the character to fight the Democrat smear machine.  If he goes down in flames, it teaches us that he was never fit to be Presidential material anyway.

All in all, I find the entire episode as a net positive.

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Obamacare Turning Into Cash For Clunkers

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The most recent news that should worry us regarding the rollout of Obamacare is the news that only a small percentage of of those purchasing plans on the exchanges were without insurance last year.

According to Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, “Right now we only see that 11 percent of the population is people that were formerly uninsured are now insured, so we didn’t really eat into the uninsured population.”

The argument among progressives was Obamacare would be very attractive to those that had gone without insurance, and would decrease the number of uninsured.  So far, that is not the reality.

Instead, what we are seeing is, in many ways, similar to the miscalculation of Cash for Clunkers.  Most economists now accept that Cash for Clunkers was a failure all around.  A study from the Brookings Institution that using the most optimistic view, it created 1 job for ever $1.4 million spent.  Not exactly bang for your buck.

What is relevant to our discussion of the ACA rollout, however, is why this was the case.

Simply put, what Cash for Clunkers did was subsidize car purchases.  So what happened?  People that were planning on buying a car 1 year or 2 years in the future moved their purchases forward. The government gave them an incentive to spend in the short-term, because they received a huge financial benefit to do so.  The problem? That ultimately did little to stimulate anything, because those same people did not buy cars later.

What is occurring in Obamacare right now is that people who were already purchasing insurance have looked at the exchanges, and now see that they could financially benefit from the subsidies.  Those people thus made a market oriented choice; why turn away free money?

However, here is the rub: if people are making a market oriented choice…what is the incentive for those who didn’t purchase insurance prior to Obamacare to change their mind now?  In many ways, low-cost insurance was cheaper last year than it is this year; so the uninsured, in many cases, have less incentive to purchase insurance today.

Many of these people actually made a market decision prior to Obamacare: they felt the cost was worth the risk.  What we are seeing in the Obamacare marketplace is the same thing.  People that didn’t have insurance are, for the most part, making the same market decision.  On the other hand, those that had insurance before are simply looking for the best deal available…and if the government hands you free money, who is going to say no?  Again…the market always wins.

We are making the same mistake on a macroeconomic level on Obamacare as we did with Cash for Clunkers.  You really want to motivate people to make choices, you must use the marketplace in your favor.  But the government, in both of these cases, was and is fighting the market.  They are giving subsidies, but they are not truly making it financially more attractive for people to buy insurance today than before.  If the uninsured don’t see a huge financial incentive to purchase insurance, no amount of subsidy will change that dynamic.

 

 

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Why The New Obamacare Demographic Data Matters

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services released the first nationwide demographic data on those purchasing insurance through the various health care exchanges around the country.  The data largely affirms what many had suspected; that the young, relatively healthier members of the public so far are not buying into the system.

Most estimates, especially those from the Congressional Budget Office, stated that the exchange plans needed approximately 39-40% of their enrollees to consist of people in the youngest age group (18-34 years of age).  This was for a very basic reason:  to enable the financial sustainability of these plans, you needed younger (READ: HEALTHIER) patients to pay into the system, so those older (READ: LESS HEALTHY) patients could be subsidized at lower premium rates.

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The data so far should prove worrisome.  59% of those enrolling so far are age 45 and above.  Only 24% are age 34 and below. 

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To give some perspective, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation done several months ago ran several different scenarios to calculate the cost breakdown of what would happen with different demographic results. Their chosen ‘worst case scenario’?  25% of the pool would consist of young patients…which is actually a higher number than the demographic distribution as of today.

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The Kaiser study is quite useful in calculating what the cost of such a failure in getting young people to buy into the system is.  For every 10% less than the 40% target, Kaiser estimates the cost of premiums overall would increase by 1-2%.  At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be very significant.  However, once you realize that health insurers on average have a profit margin of around 4%, this could account for up to half of the total profits from health insurers.  And obviously, insurers won’t put up with that, meaning those costs will be passed on to the public.

Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic continues to argue that this is along the same pace as Romneycare in Massachusetts.  And in fact, a superficial examination of the data supports his argument.  In Massachusetts, as the state approached the deadline, more and more youths purchases insurance plans.  This gives hopes to liberals that we will continue to see an upward trend nationally as well.

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Here are the problems however.

First, note the actual number of youth enrollees in Massachusetts.  The maximum monthly percentage of new purchasers of insurance maxed out at 34%.  That is not only below the target of 40% set by the CBO; that is far below the number that the ACA would now need to meet their demographic goals.  By my rough calculations, approximately half of all new purchasers on the exchanges from January 1st through March 31st of this year would need to be age 18-34.  That seems highly unlikely, using Massachusetts as an example.

Additionally, unlike in Massachusetts, where there was one distinct deadline, in Obamacare there are really two practical deadlines. The first was January 1, 2014; this is because people who had insurance previously and wanted to continue their insurance needed to make sure they made their purchase already.  That would also explain the December surge of young buyers that the HHS claimed today.

The problem for ACA proponents is the second deadline, which has now been delayed until March 31st. The second deadline is a legal deadline, after which you are technically in violation of the law.  And theoretically, at that point you would be responsible for paying the Obamacare penalty (tax) based on your income level.

There are a couple of problems with the second deadline. The first is that unlike in Massachusetts, it may actually be in the financial best interest of some young people to pay the penalty (let us put aside whether or not it is a rational decision to go without health insurance; we are talking about a cost decision).  With premiums (even with subsidies) running several hundred dollars a month, a young person with income of less than $24,000 could easily pay the $95 penalty and be free of any other financial obligation.

Furthermore, many people doubt the IRS has the current capability of even levying the fine.  There has been some confusion on this point, but the head of the IRS in congressional testimony late last year admitted that if you were not receiving a tax refund from the IRS, they have no mechanism to levy the penalty at this time. So many youths simply could not be fined even if the IRS chose to do so.

Additionally, because of President Obama’s varying Obamacare delays, including delaying the individual mandate next year for people who had their insurance cancelled, it is fair to say much of the public doesn’t really believe there will be any practical penalty for not purchasing health care in 2014 if they choose not to.

Health care expert Bob Laszewski, in an interview with liberal blogger Ezra Klein, made the point quite clearly:

EK: That brings up two issues. The first is the individual mandate, which begins this year but is a much bigger penalty in year two, and then even bigger in year three. So one question here is how well that works.

RL: I have an interesting answer for that. I think the mandate is almost worthless because the word is getting around that they can’t really collect it. And by year three, it’s really a lot of money. I think there’ll be real pressure to just get rid of it. I don’t think you can force people to buy this insurance. If they don’t want it there’ll be a political groundswell to get rid of it. So in my mind the individual mandate is kind of irrelevant to this.

All that said, let me make a couple essential caveats to this discussion.

The first caveat here is that age is a poor substitute for what is actually most important: the health of these patients.  The risk pools need healthier people to pay into the system in order to pay for those that spend the most health dollars, i.e. the unhealthy.  In general, that means younger patients paying for older ones.  Although using age demographics is a decent substitute for this, it is an imperfect one.

Second, the ACA is a completely new system.  We have no idea if there is any historical analogue that can correlate.  We use Massachusetts and their experiment with Romneycare simply because there is nothing else even closely resembles Obamacare.

Third, and this is very important to remember, is that we are really not talking about a single national system, but 51 state and local systems.  Each state is their own microcosm.  Avik Roy had a nice breakdown:

The states with the biggest skews toward older exchange participants were West Virginia (total skew: 66 percent), Maine (65 percent), Wisconsin (64 percent), New Mexico (61 percent), and Ohio (60 percent). The states with the lowest skews were Massachusetts (28), Utah (29), Kentucky (39), Maryland (39), and Virginia (40).

Whether this becomes significant or not in the long-term is uncertain.  But the larger skewing you see toward the elderly population, the more likely they will see a net effect on future premiums.

On a side note, there is some positive data for Obama and his allies.  A surprising 60% of all plans purchased on the exchanges are Silver level…meaning people are paying more to upgrade their plans, and pay less out-of-pocket later.  This is a political win for Democrats, who thus will not have to be responsible for as many people complaining for hefty out-of-pocket costs in 2014.

One data point that can be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view is the fact that 79% of all purchasers are subsidized.  This aligns with the CBO estimates, which roughly predicted a ration of 6:1.  I personally view this as a long-term negative, as this will drive up the debt on the Federal level, and in three years when the Federal guarantee of subsidization of state Medicaid program ends, this could put a huge burden on the states.  Liberals view this as a major victory, as they feel that insuring these people with tax dollars is beneficial to the country at large.

But the headline today is about the demographics.  What does all of this ultimately mean?  The most likely result of all this is that the risk pools for the exchanges will be mild to moderately worse than anyone predicted a few years ago.  No matter how much certain liberals would like to spin that this is on a similar pace as Massachusetts, the overall numbers tell a different story.  We are looking at risk pools that are worse than predicted; the CEO of Humana, Bruce Broussard, admitted as much at the JP Morgan Health Insurance conference on Monday.

Will this put Obamacare into a death spiral?  Unlikely.  As I have said for months, the death spiral is highly unlikely.  Additionally, because of the risk corridor program within the Affordable Care Act, the government will, for all practical purposes, ‘bail out’ the insurers if the risk pools cause too much of a negative effect on profits.

So what we are looking at is more upward bending of the cost curve, as these costs are passed down from the insurers to the public, with premiums increasing at a 1-2% rate higher than baseline expectations. And that means that going forward, premiums for most Americans will be higher than if we had never passed Obamacare in the first place.  The American people can decide if that extra cost was worth it or not.

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2013 Top 10 Movies Of The Year

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After a strong 2012 season, 2013 was slightly disappointing.  Many of the most anticipated movies were either bombs or fell far short of expectation.  And I honestly can’t name a movie this year that I would call ‘historic’ or ‘transcendent’.

Here are my past selections:  2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

However, there were still many strong new movies this year, and these are the ones I enjoyed the most.

Honorable Mentions: Fast and Furious 6, Captain Phillips, Before Midnight, Ender’s Game, About Time, Spring Breakers, This is the End, The Wolverine, Inside Llewyn Davis, Monsters University, The Place Beyond The Pines, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Man of Steel, Despicable Me 2, Fruitvale Station, Blackfish, The World’s End, Saving Mr. Banks

Worst or most disappointing movies of the year:  Most disappointing: Ender’s Game.  It is listed in the Honorable Mentions, as I still enjoyed it, but it could have been so much more.  Others:  Lone Ranger, The Canyons, The Internship.  Worst Movie?  After Earth.  Will Smith and son, along with  Director M. Night Shymalan, just…failed.  Miserably.  Maybe we should start calling this the ‘M. Night Shymalan Award’?

 

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10.  Kings of Summer

This movie took me by surprise; thought it was going to be a goofball type of movie, but actually had far more depth than I expected.  It’s a coming-of-age movie where 3 teen boys, sick of their families, dream of building a hidden house in the woods. They run around in a weird ‘Lord of the Flies’ sort of way, but their path to maturity is entertaining.

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9. Her

This is a movie that I literally saw a few hours ago. Who would have thought it would be fun to watch Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with his computer?  And is there a sexier computer in the history of cinema than this one voiced by Scarlett Johansson?  This is, surprisingly, one of the more strangely realistic and emotionally driven movies of the year.  It is certainly unique, and I can see some people not finding the frightening reality of what could come in the near future as entertaining as I did.

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 8.  Frozen

This movie surprised me.  The ‘non-Pixar’ movies from Disney have been less hit and more miss in recent years.  Frozen changes that.  For the first time as long as I can remember, I preferred this over Pixar’s Monsters University. Between the classic Disney catchy songs, and the ridiculously lovable characters of the current Disney era, I think there are many people who fell in love with this movie.  “Frozen” is somewhat like The Little Mermaid, with a slightly more modern twist.

7. Short Term 12

NOBODY has heard of this movie…other than movie critics.  I actually saw this with my movie critic friend a while back…and it is excellent. The story centers around several twentysomethings who work at a home for at-risk teens. They help guide and mentor these kids, while facing their own doubts and apparent flaws. It is actually funny and sweet at the same time, and is one of those movies that if you have not seen…take time to do so.

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6. American Hustle

A movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in sexy outfits!  COUNT ME IN!  The remainder of the cast is also fantastic in this 70s flashback story about a con-job that echoes that of the real ABSCAM scandal.  It took me a while to get into the groovy 70s feel, but once I did…I was hooked.

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5.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Yes, it meanders. Yes, Peter Jackson invented characters.  Yes, it takes about 100 pages of the original book and converts it into a 2+ hour movie.  But…it works.  Yes, amazingly, and to my own shock, it actually does work.  Peter Jackson is a marvel; I was dubious of his ability to convert The Hobbit into three watchable movies.  The obvious reality is that this movie is a far better movie than the original, which makes you wonder if he is following his patter from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with each movie being better than its predecessor.  But this is a worthy sequel, and sets up the final part of the trilogy fantastically.

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4.  The Wolf Of Wall Street

Martin Scorcese’s over the top portrayal of the greed and debauchery of Wall Street may seem to be by some as the classic liberal complaint about greed that we have seen before.  But Leonardo Dicaprio’s portrayal of the adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir is still fantastic fun.

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3.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I honestly believe this is far better movie than the original.  It is darker, it provides better action sequences, and starts to show you the totality of the oppression that Katniss and her friend face in the futuristic land of Panem…setting up the eventual war that must occur.  After Gravity, this is by far the movie I will revisit most in the future.

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2.  12 Years A Slave

This is this year’s entrant as for the ‘Schindler’s List’ Award:  a movie that, as social commentary, must be seen once, is a moving and draining experience, and will probably force you to avoid that movie for the rest of your life.  The portrayal of a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery probably does the best job I can recall of portraying the horrors of slavery.  I think for anyone that loves American History as I do, this is a must watch..at least, once.

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1. Gravity.

I know this is a movie some people did not like, for various reasons. But I think, after reaching the end of the year, this is the one non-superhero movie I will revisit again. If you did not see this movie on IMAX…you missed out.  Alfonso Cuarón’s  12 minute opening scene is, by far, the best cinematic episode of the year, and maybe of many years. And it is one of those rare action movies that results in a true emotional connection with the viewer.

 

 

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The State Of America, Part 1: Tolerance: Why Can’t We Get Along?

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For the Christmas/New Year’s Season, I thought I would do something a little different on a personal note. No hyper-partisan political posts on the blog for a few days.  We have had enough of that, haven’t we? Obama is off in Hawaii, I think we can take a small breather.

I wanted to focus just on my view of where America stands in other ways.

Today my ranting focus on a simple reality I think many of us experience when talking about any controversial subject: the complete loss of tolerance in society.

In many ways, this is ironic.  Tolerance in the classic sense centered around the acceptance of those that were physically and religiously different from us.  It was focused on the external appearance and activities of individuals.  Over the years, we have certainly become more tolerant of other religions and races.  The election of Barack Hussein Obama is simply the greatest example of that tolerance, where we elected a half Caucasian, half African-American male from Hawaii with an Arabic name to the highest office of the land.

But in other ways, we have walking backward in the concept of tolerance.  When it comes to people’s innate beliefs, there has been a movement to squash ideas that are outside the ‘norm’ that our political and media mainstream finds ‘acceptable’.

It is a sad transition that America is making.  In their quest for visual tolerance, they are becoming more intellectually intolerant.  We can list a litany of examples, some recently, where people who were simply asked their opinion, honestly responded…and were treated as villains for that honesty.

Society clearly is in the right when we shun those that truly damage others, whose actions demean and hurt people based on their faith or race.

But commentary, of any sort, does nothing of the sort.  In a free society, we are not free from being offended.  I have often stated that if offensive speech is not free, then there is no freedom of speech.

But today, we apparently want freedom from offense.  Somehow, we have come to a point where we believe that if someone has offended us by a throw away comment on Twitter, or if makes a comment about their religion even though we have never met them in real life…that this means they have infringed on our basic rights in some manner.

This type of ‘victimhood society’ permeates virtually every large discussion that our society has today.  Every issue, regardless of merit, must be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Is there any issue nowadays that doesn’t reach that ultimate climax?

This type of debate is harmful to a society.  There is nothing intellectual about such debate.  Having a debate about which ideas are useful, and which are not, is healthy.  Labelling any belief that doesn’t fit into your own narrow belief system as bigoted?  That divides and damages a society.

Furthermore, distilling everything down to the level of bigotry clouds the real racism and bigotry that goes on this country.  While we complain about Duck Dynasty or Alec Baldwin, millions of  youths continue to go to schools that are failing them, insuring they have little chance of long-term economic success in the world economy.  Large portions of society languish in jobs that have no potential for upward mobility, and we spend our time talking about what the random millionaire entertainer said this week.  We are becoming a dumber society, day by day.

Another example is the apparent ‘blasphemy’ that the traditional concept of Christmas is to the secular extremists in society.  Arguing whether a manger can be in the public square, a Christmas tree at school, or whether Santa is white or black? Please.  This is all nonsense .  The ‘COEXIST’ symbol at the top of the page?  It is a common one that is shared among many, but I don’t think they really believe in the heart of the concept.

Maybe it was my Hindu upbringing, but I was pretty much willing to accept all religious holidays.  My parents, who grew up in India, regularly celebrated Christmas as kids.  They celebrated Muslim holidays as well.  And their Christian and Muslim friends would celebrate Hindu holidays.  India is certainly not perfect when it comes to religious tolerance, that this simple level of acceptance allows for the huge religious divided to be bridged somewhat.  That is what true acceptance of others beliefs means, but apparently, that is not readily accepted in today’s America. We have forgotten that we choose to become involved in the activities that we like, can choose when we want to pass, and that others should be free to do the same. Today, however, unless everyone conforms, someone is offended.

This is not, in my opinion, a left or right political wedge.  In a large country such as ours, with a diverse and heterogeneous society, there are enough divisions that separate us already that we should not have to create new ones to divide us further.  There was a time we simply accepted that some people disagreed with us.  We used to teach preschoolers and kindergarteners that even if someone disagreed with you, you could shake hands and walk away without hating each other.

Maybe it is time to send the rest of America back to Kindergarten.

Ideological tolerance will be at the heart of what the Free Speech movement will need in the coming decades, because amazingly, he have solved many, but not all, of the physical intolerance in society.  People will continue to try to divide us as a people, because for some, that is all they know.  But we should all hope and pray for a society where we can fundamentally disagree, tolerate those beliefs we object to, find joy in others who are fundamentally different than us, while still treating each other with respect and true tolerance that a free society requires.

Sadly, that is not the America we live in today.

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The Band-Aid Presidency

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Last night, in the most classic way imaginable, the Obama administration dumped a 800 lb of coal into the stockings of liberal America on the eve of the Christmas holiday.

The Administration announced that any person who had their health insurance cancelled late this year are no longer obligated to legally abide by the individual mandate, the central taxation component of the Affordable Care Act.  Additionally, these same people could satisfy the mandate requirement by purchasing catastrophic insurance alone, which previously was not considered sufficient to satisfy the mandate requirements.

The argument that the administration is making is ironic in so many ways.  They argue that the individual mandate, arguably the most important cog to the workings of Obamacare, is a ‘hardship’ to millions of Americans.  Furthermore, they are arguing that because of this hardship, they will simply delay that part of the law.

Think about the legality for a second:  President Obama is issuing a hardship exemption for something the Supreme Court has defined…as a tax.

Can you imagine the fun a Republican President can have with that power?

Let us also remember that this invalidates virtually every Democrat and liberal argument against a deal to avert October’s congressional shutdown.  Let us not forget that Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee put a proposal on the table to avert the shutdown if the administration simply agreed to a 1 year delay to the individual mandate.  Yesterday, Barack Obama did just that…proving that much of his stance on the shutdown was political theater, nothing more.

In the larger picture, this type of policy change largely defines the entire Obama Presidency. The pattern is as follows:  Obama and liberals propose a policy that, any common sense would tell you, cannot function in the real world. They pass this policy, often distorting the facts to the American public to get their support.  Once passed, they all of a sudden realize the idiocies contained in their plan, and rush to distance themselves from the plan they were recently advocating.  Once the policy becomes active, they realize that reality is more powerful than ideology, and thus, look for any and all ways to get themselves out of the mess they created.   And they use every ‘Band-Aid’ measure possible to cover-up the mess they have created.

The Band-Aids are piling up, and it does not only refer to health care.  Look no further than foreign policy this.  Obama’s Syria ‘Red line’ policy is a perfect example.  Obama talked a good game, but then realize that there was no way to enforce his red-line in the real world.  He quickly ran away from that policy, only to end up with a policy that, ironically, strengthened the power of a man Obama said was ‘evil’, Bashar Assad.

If you want to go further back, the Obama stimulus often had many of these characteristics as well. They passed statutes for ‘shovel-ready’ projects, and later realized there was no such thing.  They then pumped out the money, regardless of effect, to lackluster consequences.

Think of the fallacy of this latest Band-Aid on Obamacare.  The administration is arguing that they have imposed a hardship on at least 5 million Americans who lost their health insurance because of Obamacare.  So, to help these people, they are going to exempt them from the individual mandate.  However, these same people argued during the shutdown that any delay of the individual mandate would be catastrophic to the functionality of the entire ACA system.

Furthermore, the hardship claim is dubious.  Is Obama actually saying that it is more a hardship for people to lose their insurance and have to purchase it on his own exchange, than the hardship of forcing the previously uninsured to dig deep in their pocketbooks to purchase that very same insurance on the exchanges?  He is saying the previously uninsured have no burden of hardship as well?

Another liberal fallacy also dies: the argument that these were ‘substandard’ insurance policies.  Obama has now stated it is o.k. for people to move to catastrophic insurance, when the majority of this cohort had comprehensive insurance prior to Obamacare coming into effect.  In other words, Obamacare diminished  the quality of health insurance plans in America, and Obama is not legitimizing that change.

Each of the policy changes are chinks in the armor of Obamacare; that armor is now thin and rusting. This is a virtual universal delay of the individual mandate for 2014, no matter how liberals spin it.  They will never politically be able to argue that those that lost their insurance because of Obamacare bear more hardship than the uninsured do, and thus, they will be forced to exempt all Americans.  Ted Cruz wins the policy debate.

Even worse, this fixes nothing long-term.  This is a classic Obama ‘Band-Aid’.  Sure, it theoretically stops millions of people from being required to pay approximately $95 in tax penalty this April. But the real issue is not the tax, but the health care exchange.  By exempting all of these people, the administration makes the entire insurance system much less financially stable.

Insurers who were already dubious of the administration’s competence on this are now outright furious at being lied to, time and again.  They fear this will further push the risk portfolios of their insurance plans to the extreme, and thus, will increase their costs. That further increases cost pressures on health insurance premiums across the board, increasing costs for everyone. The Obamacare upward bending of the cost curve continues.

The ‘Band-Aids’ are all for show.  Ultimately, the problem is that the law itself was inherently broken.  These temporary measures actually fix nothing in the system. They are a political attempt at cover.  But nobody can protect Democrats from the onslaught of public anger that is going to arise when they realize what the ACA does, when the Band-Aids finally come off.

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