Wonkbook: How to wish a wonk a happy Valentine’s Day

February 14

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.


(Photo by Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 30. That's how many times more potent methane is than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Methane is the reason that a new study finds natural gas isn't "greener" than diesel as a transportation fuel.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: Comcast would be by far the biggest player in a dying industry.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) a wonky Valentine's Day; (2) winter's effect on the economy; (3) the methane problem for natural gas; (4) Kansas OKs anti-gay discrimination; and (5) Comcast and the specter of antitrust.

1. Top story: How to wish a wonk a happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day: Here's how health wonks say it. Like Wonkblog's own Sarah Kliff: "My love for you is like American health care costs: Overwhelming, and always growing." Dan Diamond in The Daily Briefing blog.

Some fail to pay premium after signing up for Obamacare. "One in five people who signed up for health insurance under the new health care law failed to pay their premiums on time and therefore did not receive coverage in January, insurance companies and industry experts say. Paying the first month’s premium is the final step in completing an enrollment. Under federal rules, people must pay the initial premium to have coverage take effect. In view of the chaotic debut of the federal marketplace and many state exchanges, the White House urged insurers to give people more time, and many agreed to do so. But, insurers said, some people missed even the extended deadlines." Robert Pear in The New York Times.

States struggle to add Latinos to insurance rolls. "[E]nrollment of Latinos has fallen strikingly below the hopes of the law’s proponents, accounting for 20 percent or fewer of those who had signed up on the state-run health insurance exchange by the end of December. Now, state officials are rushing to expand marketing efforts and hire additional Spanish-speaking staff, hoping to sharply increase that number by March 31, when open enrollment in the new insurance plans ends." Jennifer Medina and Abby Goodnough in The New York Times.

A skimpier insurance policy from Obamacare? "Some backers of the 2010 health-care law are pushing to create a new kind of insurance coverage that the measure essentially had ruled out: policies offering lower premiums but significantly higher out-of-pocket costs than those now available...Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Warner of Virginia, both Democrats facing close re-election races this year, are sponsoring legislation that would allow people to buy copper plans on the exchanges. Moreover, insurance-industry officials have been talking up the idea with federal officials, though it is unclear whether the administration could make the change through regulations." Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: A guide to understanding Obamacare’s sign-up numbersSarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Republicans press Obama on Medicare insurance cuts. "House Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for upcoming cuts to a popular Medicare insurance plan in an effort to open a new front in their battle against Obamacare. Top Republicans wrote to Obama on Thursday “to express deep concern about the impact of the cuts imposed by your health care law on the Medicare Advantage (MA) program and the recent action by CMS to fundamentally dismantle the Medicare prescription drug program.”...The letter is signed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the two chairmen with jurisdiction over the health care law — Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton. New Medicare Advantage rates - which are set by the government - are slated to be released Feb. 21. The industry is expecting a significant cut, which could anger seniors on the plan." Jake Sherman and Jennifer Haberkorn in Politico.

GRUBER: Obamacare critics aren't telling the whole story. "The economics profession is famous for its balance—as the joke goes, we always need more hands to express all the caveats to our conclusions. (“On the other hand … and on the other hand … and on the other hand…”) That is why arguments about last week’s report from the Congressional Budget Office have become so frustrating, even when accomplished scholars are the ones doing the arguing. Instead of addressing a subtle and complicated issue with (at least!) two sides, the law’s critics keep turning it into a single-sided moral diatribe about the work ethic and the supposed damage Obamacare is doing to it." Jonathan Gruber in The New Republic.

ROY: Obamacare won't spiral to its death. "In some quarters, there has been a kind of intellectual laziness, a belief that there’s no need for critics to come up with better reforms, because Obamacare will “collapse under its own weight,” relieving them of that responsibility. Obamacare isn’t good for the country. But it’s not going to collapse. And that makes the development of a credible, market-oriented health-reform agenda more urgent than ever." Avik Roy in Forbes.

REINHARDT: Tax subsidies and the incentive to work. "Calculating the marginal tax rate inherent in the Affordable Care Act, which can be done with reasonable accuracy, is only half the story. The rest depends on what assumption one makes concerning the likely behavioral response of employed or unemployed workers to changes in marginal income-tax rates." Uwe Reinhardt in The New York Times.

Music recommendations interlude: Tunng, "Hustle," 2010.

Top opinion

STRAIN: A $4 minimum wage can get people back to work. "One goal should be to make it easier for companies to hire the long-term unemployed. And a step forward would be to let companies pay the long-term unemployed less by lowering the minimum wage for them...If we knocked the minimum wage down to, say, $4 an hour, we would significantly mitigate employers' risk from hiring a long-term unemployed worker. Allowing employers to pay this group of people 45 percent less than other minimum-wage workers provides a strong incentive for businesses to give the long-term unemployed a shot." Michael R. Strain in Bloomberg.

Longread: Chris Christie's rise and fallAlec MacGillis in The New Republic.

OYER: How economics can make you a better Valentine. "“Signaling” in economics means figuring out a way to show another party that you really mean what you say. In many cases, the best way to signal is to make a wasteful investment. This shows you are willing to spend a lot to demonstrate your credibility, and it separates you from those who will not expend that cost...So how do you say “Honey, I really care about you, and you are very special to me”? Put your resources where your mouth is. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but to credibly signal you really care, do something personal." Paul Oyer in The New York Times.

KRUGMAN: Inequality, dignity and freedom. "In the face of that kind of everyday struggle, talk about the dignity of work rings hollow. So what would give working Americans more dignity in their lives, despite huge income disparities? How about assuring them that the essentials — health care, opportunity for their children, a minimal income — will be there even if their boss fires them or their jobs are shipped overseas?" Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

EICHENGREEN: The dollar and the damage done. "It is striking, therefore, that the Fed has made no effort to take into account the impact of its policies on emerging economies or the blowback from emerging markets on the US...Put these three events – the tapering of QE, the torpedoing of IMF reform, and the entrenchment of dollar swaps – together and what you get is a US that has renationalized the international lender-of-last-resort function. Simply put, the Fed is the only emergency source of dollar liquidity still standing." Barry Eichengreen in Project Syndicate.

PONNURU: Reform sweeps conservatism. "All of a sudden, Republicans are beginning to construct a new national agenda. Every week, it seems, some Republican is announcing a new policy initiative — on health care, on taxes, on poverty. None of these announcements dominates the next day’s news stories. Together, though, they suggest that the party is in the process of a reorientation that will ultimately leave it stronger: better able to win elections, and better able to govern conservatively." Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review Online.

CANTOR: An America that works. "[M]ost working-age Americans don’t have a college degree. Unemployment for those with only a high-school diploma is 7.1 percent. Their labor-force-participation rate is an astonishingly low 58 percent — the lowest level for the period for which we have records. And it is even worse for those without a high-school diploma. America doesn’t work if Americans aren’t working. An America that works requires an economy where jobs of all kinds are being created: white-collar, blue-collar, part-time, full-time. Diverse jobs that reflect the diversity of our country." Eric Cantor in National Review Online.

TAYLOR: Reform the IMF. Then fund it. "The 2010 agreement sensibly shifts IMF voting power toward those emerging market countries such as Brazil, China and India whose economies have grown rapidly in recent years and away from the slow-growing European economies. But the agreement also doubled the funds that the IMF is free to loan to any country it wishes, from Greece to Grenada. That's where the trouble lies." John B. Taylor in The Wall Street Journal.

CRAWFORD: Comcast-Time Warner deal would be bad for America. "The reason this deal is scary is that for the vast majority of businesses in 19 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country, their only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast. Comcast, in turn, has its own built-in conflicts of interest: It will be serving the interests of its shareholders by keeping investments in its network as low as possible -- in particular, making no move to provide the world-class fiber-optic connections that are now standard and cheap in other countries -- and extracting as much rent as it can, in all kinds of ways. Comcast, for purposes of today's public , is calling itself a "cable company." It no longer is. Comcast sells infrastructure subject to neither competition nor a cop on the beat." Susan Crawford in Bloomberg.

BROOKS: The refiner's fire. "Politics, as Max Weber famously said, is the necessary work of strong and slow boring through hard boards. People who do it out of a sense of selfishness and vanity, often give up, because the life can be miserable. The people who sustain are usually motivated by a sense of service, and by evidence of the good that laws and programs can do. Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realized what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be." David Brooks in The New York Times.

BEINART: Why the Republican push for black voters is mostly doomed to fail. "[T]he biggest factor determining whether African Americans vote Republican isn’t a candidate’s race. It’s his or her views. In 2006, for instance, conservative black Republican Ken Blackwell won 20 percent of the African-American vote in his campaign for governor of Ohio. In 1994, by contrast, a white Republican candidate for the same office, George Voinovich, won 42 percent of the black vote, largely because as mayor of Cleveland he had pursued policies—like desegregating the city’s police force—that African Americans liked." Peter Beinart in The Atlantic.

Debate: Robert Kuttner and William Galston on the safety netThe American Prospect.

PAREENE: The Can Kicks Back is failing. Yay. "One fundraising problem The Can Kicks Back has faced is the entirely accurate perception that it is not actually a grass-roots organization of young people deeply concerned with reckless entitlement spending and unsustainable long-term debt, but rather yet another front group — and in this case a particularly ineffective one — for the small network of billionaires who have spent decades advocating tax cuts and the rolling back of Social Security and Medicare benefits, in the name of fiscal responsibility. It turns out that most young Americans, being members of a generation that has had some trouble with the job market, don’t care about the federal government’s 30-year debt projections as much as they care about “having enough money for food and rent.”" Alex Pareene in Salon.

Princeton interlude: This is an amazing prank.

2. Is the economy getting wintry?

Icy winter is freezing growth, economists say. "According to The Wall Street Journal's monthly survey of economists on their forecasts on growth, employment, inflation and monetary policy, unusually harsh weather will trim 0.3 percentage point from real gross domestic product growth this quarter. The cut would pull the first quarter's annualized growth rate to 2.2%, down from the 2.5% forecast a month ago and well below the actual 3.2% rate of the fourth quarter of 2013. Harsh winter weather has closed businesses, disrupted transportation systems and supply chains, and kept shoppers at home. Another drag is the higher cost to consumers to keep warm." Kathleen Madigan in The Wall Street Journal.

Retail sales fall, pointing to slowing growth. "An economic recovery that looked poised to lift off is reverting to its characteristic sluggishness as gauges of shopping activity, job creation, wage growth and factory output flash yellow. And it's more than just the weather that's behind the malaise. The latest warning sign came Thursday in a Commerce Department report showing a 0.4% drop in retail sales in January from a month earlier, the sharpest decline in a year and a half. Americans cut back on a broad swath of goods including cars, furniture and clothing." Josh Mitchell and Sarah Portlock in The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. jobless claims rose 8,000 last week. "The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, though the longer-run trend still points to a steadying labor market. Initial claims for jobless benefits, a measure of layoffs, increased by 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 339,000 in the week ended Feb. 8, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was above the 330,000 forecast by economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires. Last week's number of 331,000 was unrevised. The four-week moving average of claims, which evens out week-to-week changes, rose slightly to 336,750." Sarah Portlock in The Wall Street Journal.

Can the Fed do more to stop the wave of credit-card fraud? "Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked the Federal Reserve to do more to prevent credit card fraud. On Wednesday, the senators sent Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen a letter asking her to work with them to improve the way credit card issuers and merchants protect consumers from fraud...The senators asked Yellen to respond to a list of questions — such as how many debt card issues are using effecting fraud prevention programs — by March 12." Ramsey Cox in The Hill.

Cleveland Fed picks new president. "The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has appointed Loretta Mester as its new president in a move that may shift the central bank’s focus towards financial stability over aggressive monetary stimulus...The choice of Ms Mester may make the FOMC slightly more hawkish, given her expertise in financial risks, and her years working for Charles Plosser – an opponent of the Fed’s recent rounds of quantitative easing – in Philadelphia. It also highlights the trend to appoint academic economists to head regional Fed banks as the work of the FOMC comes to dominate their traditional role as links to the local banking and business community." Robin Harding in The Financial Times.

Durham Academy interlude: This is how I wish they did weather announcements everywhere.

3. Methane poses a problem for nat-gas transit

Study finds methane leaks offset benefits of natural gas as vehicle fuel. "The sign is ubiquitous on city buses around the country: “This bus runs on clean burning natural gas.” But a surprising new report, to be published Friday in the journal Science, concludes that switching buses and trucks from traditional diesel fuel to natural gas could actually harm the planet’s climate. Although burning natural gas as a transportation fuel produces 30 percent less planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions than burning diesel, the drilling and production of natural gas can lead to leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Those methane leaks negate the climate change benefits of using natural gas as a transportation fuel." Coral Davenport in The New York Times.

Coal fights back. "As another snowstorm socks the East Coast, the coal industry has a message for the nation’s electricity customers: We told you so. Signs of growing pains have abounded in the past few weeks of frigid weather, which struck a U.S. electrical grid that’s in the early stages of a long-term shift away from coal-fired power to natural gas. Wholesale electricity prices have spiked in regions such as New England, natural gas costs have surged with demand in Boston and Chicago, and power companies in Texas and Eastern states have had to urge residents to cut back. Some utilities have even been shifting, yes, back to coal." Darius Dixon and Erica Martinson in Politico.

Wonkbookmark interlude: How to choose an air travel search site.

4. Gay marriage advances again

Federal judge strikes down Va. ban on gay marriage. "U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen issued a sweeping 41-page opinion that mentioned at length Virginia’s past in denying interracial marriage and quoted Abraham Lincoln. She struck the constitutional amendment Virginia voters approved in 2006 that both bans same-sex marriage and forbids recognition of such unions performed elsewhere. She stayed her decision pending appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, meaning same-sex marriages will be not be immediately available in the commonwealth." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Kansas House passes bill allowing refusal of service to same-sex couples. "Denying services to same-sex couples may soon become legal in Kansas. House Bill 2453 explicitly protects religious individuals, groups and businesses that refuse services to same-sex couples, particularly those looking to tie the knot. It passed the state's Republican-dominated House on Wednesday with a vote of 72-49, and has gone to the Senate for a vote." Ben Brumfield and Dana Ford in CNN.

The Supreme Court's fuse to legalize gay marriage is going, going, gone. "What is remarkable is the speed at which the issue is making its way back up the courts. The Supreme Court's ruling against DOMA came 10 years after it invalidate laws banning same-sex sodomy between consenting adults. Now, just months later, the issue of whether gay marriage is a constitutional right is already being heard one notch below the Supreme Court." Sahil Kapur in Talking Points Memo.

Facebook expands its gender settings. "The feature is designed to help transgender users of the site, and now has 50 options, including 'cisgender,' 'transgender' and 'intersex'. The site has also updated its setting to allow users to select a neutral pronoun referring to them as they, their or them...[Facebook] aimed at giving people more choices in how they describe themselves, such as androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid or transsexual." The Associated Press.

News you can use interlude: How to make a rose from a napkin.

5. Does Comcast raise antitrust concerns?

What you need to know about Comcast's deal with Time Warner Cable. "The deal, announced on Thursday, solidifies Comcast’s reputation as an enterprise with grand, even audacious, ambitions. Begun 51 years ago with just 1,200 subscribers in northern Mississippi, Comcast has grown into a giant conglomerate that now has one foot in the broadband and cable businesses and another in content, thanks to its ownership of NBCUniversal...The deal to acquire Time Warner Cable — completed in just a week — is certain to face scrutiny from the government and opposition from consumer groups. But if approved, it will make Comcast a national player, adding millions of subscribers in major markets like New York City, Dallas and Los Angeles." Michael J. De La Merced and Bill Carter in The New York Times.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

All eyes on Chattanooga: VW’s workers are deciding the future of unions in the SouthLydia DePillis.

How China’s appetite for raw materials is transforming the worldBrad Plumer.

A guide to understanding Obamacare’s sign-up numbersSarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Could a discharge petition get immigration reform onto the floor of the HouseAshley Parker and Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Snowden swiped password from NSA coworkerMichael Isikoff in NBC News.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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