Wonkbook: The state of our union is already changing

January 30

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Evan Soltas. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


President Obama tours the U.S. Steel Irvin Plant on Jan. 29 before speaking about retirement policies he highlighted in the State of the Union Address. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: $15,000. That's the most you'll be allowed to save in the myRA, the new starter retirement-savings account launched yesterday.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: The bottom 40 percent of the income distribution has a savings rate of approximately 0 percent.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) policy actions take effect; (2) Fed keeps cutting monetary stimulus; (3) a bit of transparency for the secret court; (4) health insurers in love–hate relationship with Obamacare; and (5) energy boom strains policy pipeline.

1. Top story: Policy changes from State of the Union already take effect

Obama’s MyRA program seen as a modest first step to get people saving for retirement. "President Obama’s plan to create retirement accounts for workers who do not have that option on the job represents a tiny first step toward addressing the increasingly urgent problem of Americans who do not save enough for old age, analysts say. Obama signed an executive order Wednesday directing the Treasury Department to create MyRA, a government-guaranteed savings account that pays minimal interest rates and is aimed at the nearly half of American workers whose employers do not offer retirement plans."  Michael A. Fletcher in The Washington Post.

The logic behind Obama’s new ‘starter savings account.' "Here's the essential insight: About a decade ago, researchers started to figure out that when people are automatically enrolled in a savings plan, participation shot up by as much as 20 percent. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 allowed employers to do that on a larger scale, and now almost everyone who offers a 401(k) plan signs up employees by default...The MyRA option would create an cheaper way for smaller employers to enroll their workers in some sort of plan, by taking an automatic payroll deduction that goes into a Roth IRA-style, government-backed account with the employee's name on it. There's only one investment option available, and it won't appreciate that quickly, but it'll be impossible to lose money." Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post.

How myRAs could solve two big problems. "Basically, there are two big problems with IRAs and 401Ks. First, not everyone can get them: About 75 million Americans don't have access to a retirement plan through their employer, and if you want to open a retirement account on your own, you usually have to have some money already...The only problem, politically, is that auto-IRA programs require congressional approval...Recently – and this is where MyRA comes in – the Obama administration found a way to solve both of these problems at once, without going through Congress." Kevin Roose in New York Magazine.

@jbarro: Oops. One senior administration official is calling it "Myra," another is calling it "My-R-A." Dissension in the ranks.

Following State of the Union appeal, unemployment insurance bill makes progress in Senate. "Prospects for the Senate to renew expired unemployment benefits appeared to brighten on Wednesday as bipartisan talks pick up steam and a procedural standoff thaws. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he planned to hold a vote next week to revive the benefits, which lapsed in December...Reid said Wednesday that Democrats are just one or two votes shy of the 60 votes they’ll need to advance unemployment legislation...Even if the Senate is able to overcome procedural hurdles, concerns about the “pension smoothing” pay-for could threaten the unemployment legislation. The provision is seen as a gimmicky revenue raiser by some Republicans." Burgess Everett and Manu Raju in Politico.

Obama wants businesses to raise pay. Here’s why they probably won’t listen. "Companies have discovered that precisely by keeping wages lower, they have been able to boost profits to record levels and fulfill their ultimate goal: rewarding shareholders. In a report released earlier this month, Goldman Sachs chief U.S. chief economist Jan Hatzius noted that the strength in corporate profits is “directly related to the weakness in hourly wages.”" Jia Lynn Yang in The Washington Post.

@haroldpollack: The new MyRA should be exempt from Medicaid asset limits for the elderly+disabled. That would improve savings incentives+help many people.

Obama touted economic security proposals yesterday in Md., Pa. "Obama will begin his day by visiting a Costco in Lanham, Md., which White House officials said they chose because of the company's move to increase wages for even its lowest-paid employees...The administration says the initial investment could be as low as $25 and further contributions could be as low as $5, made through automatic payroll deductions. Workers would be able to keep the same account when they change jobs or merge it with a private individual retirement account at any time. A White House document says that households earning up to $191,000 will be able to use the account, starting with a pilot program later this year, and they can save up to $15,000 in their accounts before transferring the balance to a private Roth IRA." Juliet Eilperin and Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

@econjared: I'd like to write about the admin's interesting new retirement savings plan, but every time I try to write myRA spell check makes it Myra.

Analysis: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers comes through for Republicans in State of the Union response. "Nevertheless, and to the surprise of many insiders, McMorris Rodgers largely succeeded — mixing plainspoken platitudes with tenderly told stories about her children and her blue-collar roots...It was all there — easygoing populism, an emphasis on jobs and her family, which includes a son with Down syndrome and a Navy veteran husband. It was as if a Republican pollster had created a politician with the exact profile that Republicans are looking to promote as they head toward this year’s midterm elections." Robert Costa in The Washington Post.

What's an executive order, anyway? "“Executive orders,” issued by the president personally, often involve large-scale, government-wide matters, and contain his own orders to the officials who work for him...“Presidential memoranda,” also issued by the president personally, often involve more technical matters and might be issued to one or few members of the executive branch...In the general category of “executive action,” much of the most important work comes from “regulations,” which typically have the force of law, and which may well bind the private sector." Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

STRAIN: Obama's small ball is not enough for the unemployed. "[T]he president said in his State of the Union address, referring to the pledge he is urging businesses to make not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. This is playing small ball. It would be okay if we weren’t facing big problems. But we are. The president called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits, and Congress should heed the president’s call. But other than that, and the aforementioned pledge, the president barely mentioned our unemployment crisis. Given that it is arguably our country’s most serious and immediate social and economic problem, the fact that the president continues to avoid it is deeply troubling." Michael R. Strain in National Review.

Music recommendations interlude: Jackson Browne, "The Pretender," 1976.

Top opinion

ROSIN: The gender wage gap lie. "The official Bureau of Labor Department statistics show that the median earnings of full-time female workers is 77 percent of the median earnings of full-time male workers. But that is very different than “77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.” The latter gives the impression that a man and a woman standing next to each other doing the same job for the same number of hours get paid different salaries. That’s not at all the case." Hanna Rosin in Slate.

WILLINGHAM AND GRISSMER: How to get the most out of early-education programs. "Preschools that focus mostly on social activities (as the federal Head Start program does) show minimal academic benefits. But trying to teach primarily reading and math to 4-year-olds — essentially putting a kindergarten curriculum into preschool — doesn’t work either...Small-scale studies indicate that some curriculums (like “Building Blocks” for mathematics) are effective." Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer in The New York Times.

CURRIE: To fight inequality, give kids a chance. "[R]esearch strongly suggests that high-quality preschool programs lead to better outcomes for disadvantaged children. Hence, one goal should be to improve the often poor quality of child care that is available to poor and middle-class families. Creating a universal pre-kindergarten program -- a proposal Obama repeated in his address -- would be one solution. There may be others." Janet Currie in Bloomberg.

Interview: Everyone likes the idea of equal opportunity. This economist thinks it’s a fantasyDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

DAYEN: The Post Office should just become a bank. "The Inspector General, who conducted the study with the help of a team of experts in international postal banking as well as a former executive from Merrill Lynch, correctly frames the proposal not as a challenge to mega-banks, but as a way to deliver needed amenities to the nearly 68 million Americans—over one-quarter of U.S. households—who have limited or no access to financial services. Instead of banks, these mostly low-income individuals use check-cashing stores, pawnshops, payday lenders, and other unscrupulous financial services providers who gouged their customers to the tune of $89 billion in interest and fees in 2012, according to the IG report. Post offices could deliver the same services at a 90 percent discount." David Dayen in The New Republic.

HAUSMANN: Development economics that actually works. "An alternative, Hawkins-like approach to economic development would take massive amounts of data about the world and ask what is likely to succeed next in a country or a city at a given point in time, given what is already present and in light of the experience there and everywhere else. It would be like Amazon’s recommendation system, proposing books you may like based on your and everybody else’s experience...Countries tend to move into industries that are related to the ones they already have or that are present in locations that are similar to them." Ricardo Hausmann in Project Syndicate.

PONNURU: Obama's not-so-mighty pen. "The pen referred to executive orders, which, even under a president with such an expansive view of his own authority, have pretty tight limits on what they can accomplish. The phone referred to his power to call people and ask them to do things...Obama once taunted the Clintons for their smallness of vision in the White House, but a good many of his proposals made the school uniforms and V-chips of Bill Clinton's State of the Union addresses look bold by comparison." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg

Kimmel interlude: What real people think of the State of the Union.

2. Another cutback to monetary stimulus

Fed stays the course on stimulus reduction. "The central bank will reduce the amount of money it is pumping into the recovery from $75 billion this month to $65 billion in February. The move is a sign that the Fed remains confident that the economy is healing. It said that growth has “picked up” in an official statement announcing its unanimous decision...The Fed’s decision to stay the course despite the market jitters and mixed economic data indicates that the bar for changing directions is high." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Primary source: The FOMC policy statement.

...You might say he refused to play chicken with Turkey. (Ha ha.) "Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has repeatedly argued that economic trouble in developing countries is best managed by the central banks of those countries. So the fact that Turkey's currency slid to record lows against the dollar over the past week is really Turkey's problem – even though it sparked a scare in markets around the world." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

World currencies are falling fast, but the IMF says there’s no reason to panic. "Not yet, argues International Monetary Fund financial counselor Jose Vinals, who has taken a sanguine view of the trouble that has hit large emerging markets at the same time the U.S. Federal Reserve has begun slowing its monetary stimulus...What is more to blame for the rocky times in developing world currency and stock markets, Vinals said, is a “confluence of idiosyncratic factors” – a PhD’s way of saying that each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way." Howard Schneider in The Washington Post.

Here’s how the SEC is preparing for life after financial crisis. "After sharing the post for nearly a year, Andrew Ceresney is now the sole enforcement chief at the Securities and Exchange Commission, overseeing more than 1,200 employees in the agency's largest and most high-profile division...As head of the division, Ceresney sets the agenda for his unit as it pivots away from handling financial crisis cases, and strives to meet White's promise of a "bold and unrelenting" crackdown on Wall Street abuses. He gets first crack at deciding which cases to bring, when to settle and under what terms." Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

Obama initiatives on trade run into resistance from both sides of the aisle in Senate. "Senate leaders from both parties delivered a blow to a core piece of President Obama’s economic agenda only hours after the State of the Union speech, casting doubt on whether he can push a massive new trade program through the current Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters on Capitol Hill that he opposed the “fast track” legislation considered necessary for potential treaties with Pacific and European nations to stand a chance of passage in Congress." Howard Schneider in The Washington Post.

Awesome interlude: The shortest paper and abstract ever.

3. I'll see you in secret court!

Lawyers win right to see surveillance applications to secret court. "A federal judge for the first time said the government must let a defense lawyer view applications to a secret court that authorized surveillance of a terrorism suspect, opening a new door to challenge the government's electronic-monitoring programs. Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman of U.S. District Court in Chicago told prosecutors Wednesday to turn over application materials to an attorney for Adel Daoud, who is accused of plotting to detonate a car bomb in downtown Chicago." Andrew Grossman in The Wall Street Journal.

Clapper testified to Congress. "The nation’s top intelligence official on Wednesday delivered a scorching attack on Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, and called on him and his “accomplices” to return the trove of classified documents he took from the N.S.A. James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told lawmakers that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures had done grave damage to the country’s security and had led terrorist groups to change their behavior to elude American surveillance." Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times.

Splendiferous interlude: A test of your vocabulary. (Wonkbook got 79 percent, in case you want a benchmark.)

4. Health insurers don't know whether to blame or love Obamacare 

Insurance giant blames Obamacare for profit plunge. "One of the nation’s largest insurers on Wednesday said ObamaCare was partly to blame for the company’s 68 percent drop in profits for the fourth quarter. Wellpoint said consumers wary of losing their health plans flocked to doctors before the end of the year, resulting in “higher utilization” costs than the company expected...Still, it was optimistic about its future prospects under ObamaCare, saying it expected to add more than 1 million new customers in 2014." Jonathan Easley in The Hill.

The four most important states to watch on Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. "Arkansas was the first state to propose using federal Medicaid dollars to buy private health insurance for its low-income residents. Now it could well achieve another first: Arkansas could become the first state to quit the Medicaid expansion...One of newly-elected Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's (D) priorities for 2014 has been convincing the state to expand the Medicaid program. In order to get there, he's going to have to get the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates on board -- and right now, they appear to be an incredibly tough sell." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

In cities, the average doctor wait-time is 18.5 days. "A survey of physician practices in 15 metropolitan areas across the country, which was taken before the health law expanded coverage, found that the average wait time for a new patient to see a physician in five medical specialties was 18.5 days...The good news is that wait times actually decreased slightly, down from an average of 20.4 days when the survey was last conducted in 2009, and down from 20.9 days in 2004. Singleton attributes the slight improvement to practices employing more mid-level providers like nurse practitioners, better health-care IT to help with scheduling and an increase in the number of urgent care centers." Jenny Gold in The Washington Post.

There is no Great Stagnation interlude: The world's most advanced prosthetic arm.

5. Energy boom strains policy pipeline

Sen. Landrieu says U.S. will have to allow crude oil exports. ""I'm certain there will have to be," Landrieu said. "Unless the president can do this by executive order." "Let's see what the hearing brings forth and then we can do a good strong sensible policy based on the facts," she added, referring to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing set for Thursday. Landrieu is poised to take the top post of the Senate Energy Committee as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the current chairman, is set to take the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee." Laura Barron-Lopez in The Hill.

Industry pledges to cut natural-gas flares. "Faced with growing criticism and lawsuits, an oil industry task force representing hundreds of companies in North Dakota pledged on Wednesday to make an all-out effort to capture almost all the natural gas that is being flared in the Bakken shale oil field by the end of the decade. The gas being flared as a byproduct of a rush of oil drilling releases roughly six million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, roughly equivalent to three medium-sized coal plants. Because of a lack of gas-gathering lines connecting oil wells to processing plants, nearly 30 percent of the gas flowing out of the wells has been burned as waste in recent months." Clifford Krauss in The New York Times.

Obama says fracking can be a ‘bridge’ to a clean-energy future. It’s not that simple. ": The United States can't keep burning natural gas indefinitely if we want to make truly deep cuts in emissions. At some point, the nation will have to transition to cleaner energy if we want to avoid significant climate change...Say the world instead decides to risk more global warming and aims for a carbon target of 550 parts per million. This would pose a very strong chance of breaching the 2°C threshold. Still, natural gas would be useful as an intermediate bridge in this scenario, with global gas use peaking somewhere between 2020 and 2060." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Monarch butterflies keep disappearing. Here’s whyBrad Plumer.

Bernanke refused to play chicken with Turkey todayYlan Q. Mui.

Obama says fracking can be a ‘bridge’ to a clean-energy future. It’s not that simpleBrad Plumer.

The four most important states to watch on Obamacare’s Medicaid expansionSarah Kliff.

The logic behind Obama’s new ‘starter savings account’. Lydia DePillis.

Obama wants businesses to raise pay. Here’s why they probably won’t listenJia Lynn Yang.

World currencies are falling fast, but the IMF says there’s no reason to panicHoward Schneider.

Everyone likes the idea of equal opportunity. This economist thinks it’s a fantasyDylan Matthews.

In cities, the average doctor wait-time is 18.5 daysJenny Gold.

Here’s how the SEC is preparing for life after financial crisisDina ElBoghdady.

Et Cetera

Flow of unaccompanied minors tests U.S. immigration agenciesJoel Millman and Miriam Jordan in The Wall Street Journal.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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